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LOGAN — Just like Reggie Jackson stirred the 1977 New York Yankees, football stirs the intoxicating drink that is college athletics.
Athletic directors get paid on whether or not they can create a strong football fan base; coaches get paid on whether or not they create a sustaining culture of success; and players come to a school for winning and the spoils of victory.
No other sport in college sports creates hype and intrigue around a program quite like college football, and every state has seen programs which prove that statement to be true.
Think of the University of Utah in the 1990s. Rick Majerus had the Runnin’ Utes on the cusp of winning it all, yet Utah wasn’t thought of as a big-time athletics program until Urban Meyer took Utah to an undefeated season and the Fiesta Bowl.
Indeed, football rules the roost, and it is for that reason that Utah State needs to do whatever it can to keep Matt Wells firmly entrenched as the Aggies’ head coach. Forever, Utah State’s football job has been a stepping stone — a place filled by coaches either on their way up or down. The Aggies, and USU athletic director Scott Barnes, need to change that mentality by giving Wells what he wants and deserves.
The Aggies have an advantage in keeping Wells long-term that they did not hold with Gary Andersen. Wells is a Utah State guy, an alumnus who won as a player at Utah State, and led his team to a berth in the Mountain West Conference title game in his first year.
Despite several coaches leaving their alma maters for higher-profile jobs (cough … John L. Smith at Weber State), it is still hard to draw a coach away from a place they love, and where they’ve been successful, if a program gives said coach a healthy salary and the power to control all football operations. If an athletic director gives a smart, motivated alumnus autonomy to run a football program as he sees fit, that is a hard position for any coach to throw away.
Also, Utah State needs to make sure the program’s amenities are the near the peak of the MWC to continue to attract elite players — a job that will rest on whether or not Barnes can continue to drive boosters to contribute to the program. The better amenities a program has, the better player the program will attract, which means more money, which means better amenities, and the rest is a circulating formula to success.
In short, if Wells wants certain amenities available to players, every effort should be made to provide for his wishes. Teams can’t win on the cheap, and Utah State’s place at the bottom of the MWC budget race won’t persuade a coach like Wells to put down deep roots in Logan — no matter how much he loves Aggie Ice Cream.
Finally, Utah State needs to provide Wells’ assistants with the means to be highly respected — meaning paying them dollars that are competitive enough to keep them in place. Any head coach will tell you a program is built on the backs of assistant coaches, and Utah State needs to move toward paying coaches the money it will take for them to stay.
Alabama is a prime example of doing this successfully. With the Crimson Tide on a roll of success, their coordinators are the target of every athletic director in the country. Yet, Alabama has given head coach Nick Saban the ability to pay his subordinates whatever it takes to keep them in Tuscaloosa. Obviously, the Aggies can’t pay their coaches what Alabama would pay, but the point is there: Pay successful people the money they need to feel valued, and they will stay in a place where they are comfortably successful.
The relevance the Aggies are experiencing right now in Utah is palpable, and it is something the school hasn’t experienced in decades, regardless of how successful Stew Morrill’s basketball team has been. If Wells names a price that isn’t utterly ridiculous, match it. If he asks for control and influence that isn’t without checks-and-balances, let him have it.
In short, the Aggies can’t afford another lost decade like they experienced when Smith left, and before Andersen arrived, and Wells ensures Utah State will be in the conversation state-wide for years to come.