Football

The Back & Forth: A Deeper Dive Into New Head Coach Matt Wells

Matt Wells is the new head football coach at Texas Tech University. Wait – who?

While he isn’t a household name, Matt Wells reportedly carries respect in coaching circles and has been on other short-lists this coaching carousel season, most notably Colorado. Now I’m not ignorant to the fact that there has been a LOT of grumbling about hiring Wells. Tech fans (in what I can only assume is a pretty vocal majority) have indicated they feel the hire is uninspired, unproven, and potentially unsuccessful. There have been plenty of numbers flying around in tweets and articles so we have put some of that information together here. Our favorite graphics guru BrianDC and I will be giving you a point/counterpoint breakdown about Wells and what we’re seeing from the specifics of this hiring.

Before you skewer either of us know that this is an exercise in looking at the new head coach, neither of us necessarily hold these opinions close to our hearts, we’re just trying to see both sides of the hire and raise points worth discussing. 

THE PROCESS

Saturday, November 24: 

  • Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt recommends termination of Kliff Kingsbury to President Lawrence Schovanec after the loss to Baylor ended the Red Raiders’ season.

Sunday, November 25:

  • Kingsbury is informed of the decision by Hocutt and they meet with the football team together.
  • The Lubbock Avalanche Journal’s Don Williams reports potential candidates:

  • Hocutt holds a Sunday afternoon press conference announcing this change in leadership. He indicates he will begin the search immediately following the press conference and work “every waking minute” on finding a new head football coach. As has been heavily reported and repeated, Hocutt said, “We will be elite in football again. I guarantee you, we will be elite in football again. This program has been there before and will get there again. We will bring back our edge.”

After the Presser: 

  • Hocutt goes radio silent. The only news coming out of the Texas Tech Athletic Department is about upcoming games and from “sources” referenced by various media outlets.

Wednesday, November 28: 

  • Hocutt appears on his weekly radio show on Double T 97.3. He arrives around 35 minutes late having left Robert Giovanetti to fill time with his own commentary and a call-in interview from Tim Tadlock.
  • Hocutt is unsurprisingly tight-lipped about the search, naming no names and giving little information. He mentions he has removed himself from all news that is not otherwise given to him by Giovanetti and answers questions vaguely.
  • Hocutt tips his hand in one regard, explaining that he cannot talk about names he is interviewing because they deserve privacy and if they don’t make a move they need to be able to return to work at their university. I (and I’m sure others) chatted in on the app asking if that means all candidates are currently coaching. Hocutt responded that this was accurate, all candidates were currently head coaches and one is a coordinator at a “high profile program. This appears to be the end of any rumors surrounding Bob Stoops or Art Briles.
  • Reports begin to circulate that Matt Wells is the frontrunner for the position.

Thursday, November 29th: 

  • Reports circulate that Dana Holgorsen is indeed interested in the Texas Tech position and that Kirby Hocutt is denying to interview him. It is also reported that Hocutt is potentially canceling a previously scheduled interview in favor of hiring Wells.
  • Around lunch, reports begin circulating that Texas Tech is in negotiations with Wells to make him the new head coach.
  • Throughout the day an official announcement is expected to happen quickly.
  • Sources indicate that an 8:30 p.m. announcement can be expected. That announcement comes after Kirby Hocutt meets with the football team.
  • Hocutt meets with media following the official Twitter announcement and those comments can be seen here. I won’t break them all down, but when he said on his radio show that President Schovanec has been heavily involved in the process, he wasn’t kidding. Hocutt, President Schovanec, and Deputy AD Tony Hernandez met with Wells in Salt Lake City for over four hours on Monday.

Keith’s Take: I think Kirby is a real guy. He’s earnest in his desire for Texas Tech to be successful and he’s not constantly scripted. He can be guarded with his words, which he most definitely was on his radio show on Wednesday, but I believe the emotion we saw in him at the press conference and the desire for greatness was genuine. Kirby was also close with Kliff Kingsbury, that was apparent. He wanted Kingsbury to succeed, and according to Kingsbury’s final post-game press conference, he gave Kingsbury everything he needed to be successful.

However, how historically elite Texas Tech football has been is definitely in question. I think conference championships are certainly an indicator of elite play and the Red Raiders have not had an outright conference championship since winning the Border Conference in 1955.

They won a share of the Southwest Conference in 1976 and again (split 5 ways) in 1994 and have never shared the Big 12 Championship. Furthermore, the 1994 co-championship was a result of Texas A&M (6-0) being ineligible for the title due to NCAA infractions. I don’t mean to kick a dead horse here, but these numbers are thrown around often and I feel like they need to be clear.

Texas Tech Football

Conference Championships

Conference Year Record Conference Record Shared With
Border 1937 8-4 3-0
Border 1942 4-5-1 4-0 Hardin-Simmons
Border 1947 6-4 4-0
Border 1948 7-3 5-0
Border 1949 7-5 5-0
Border 1951 7-4 5-0
Border 1953 11-1 5-0
Border 1954 7-2-1 4-0
Border 1955 7-3-1 3-0-1
Southwest 1976 10-2 7-1 Houston
Southwest 1994 6-6 4-3 Texas, Baylor, TCU & Rice
Big 12 South Division 2008 11-2 7-1 Oklahoma

I mention this to illustrate that if you use conference championships as a success metric, it’s hard to argue that Texas Tech has been elite since the 1940s-1950s in a conference that consisted of Arizona, Arizona State Teachers’-Flagstaff (Northen Arizona), Arizona State Teachers’ Tempe (Arizona State), University of New Mexico, New Mexico A&M (NMSU), Texas Technological College, Texas Mines (UTEP), Hardin-Simmons, and West Texas Teachers’ (WTAMU). Does that qualify as “before?” Sure, but it doesn’t seem to fit the intent of Kirby’s comments.

The elite talk has come back to haunt Kirby already and I think it will continue to for years to come unless Wells is very successful. That comment painted pictures of a big splash hire, but also one of a coach with substance, gravitas, and a proven track record of high-level success. Brent Venables would have been hotly debated but I believe he carries that cache. Bob Stoops was another candidate talked about that would have fit this mindset and resume. I don’t feel in my gut, my experience, or in looking at his resume that Wells screams “I’m going to make you elite.”

Brian’s Take: I think these are all excellent points, but as an AD, Kirby had to set a standard. He possibly misspoke by saying it will be a “return” to being elite, but the point of his message got across: the status quo ain’t it. And honestly, this is the message you ultimately want from your athletic director, that you’re not looking for a replacement level coach, especially when you’re replacing a very popular alumnus that’s still pretty much universally loved by the fanbase (even if this coaching stint didn’t pan out).

Think of the mindset of Tech fans right now. Pre-2009, even with records of 8-4, you’re feeling good just about every Saturday. The Jones is a death-trap, your team can jump up and bite anybody. You have a fun, innovative offense (for its time), and weekends in the fall tend to be fun. Then Hance & James happen, and your fan base endures a fantastically huge schism. You bring in a re-tread with name recognition that never seemed to fit in but won a few big games. He brings in a few legacy level recruits, and ditches you through a steakhouse bathroom window after 3 years. Your new AD then makes the call to your golden child: Kliff Kingsbury. The QB that kicked-off the Leach era, that went pro, traveled the world, then came back to coach. He was a comet burning through the night; he’s coached Heisman winners and NFL quarterbacks. And he’s yours. You even hire him away from a former rival that many still loathe, and he gives you that sweet, decadent line about his time there: “it was a business decision.” The fans reunite, but after 6 years of promise not much comes of it, and hope doesn’t fill a stomach as results do. Your record against winning teams isn’t good, the Jones is a desolate husk of its former reputation, and those big game wins are few and far between. Nine years later, you’ve lost the swagger & confidence. You’ve lost the home field advantage.

Elite in Kirby’s context very clearly means one thing: winning, and doing it at a high level. But we absolutely can’t get there without regaining what it once meant to play the Red Raiders, to stand in the bleachers of the Jones as an opposing fan on a Saturday night in October with that weird knot in your stomach you’ve had since Thursday. Elite means a return to confidence, and that means winning. At home, against ranked opponents, in bowls. Anywhere. As fans, we saw plenty of coaches we thought could do that, from enticing big names like Venables to members of our family like Littrell. Kirby, however, had spent a lot of time thinking about how to get to his vision for elite and knew who he wanted to set his sights on, and he wasn’t going to let ultra-rich boosters act as ad hoc athletic directors. It was Wells, Kirby probably knew all along it would be Wells, and he got his man.

THE RESUME

1993-1996: Quarterback at Utah State University
1997-2001: QBs, FBs, WRs at Navy
2002-2006: TEs & Recruiting Coordinator at Tulsa
2007-2008: WRs & Recruiting Coordinator at New Mexico
          2009: QBS & Passing Game Coordinator at Louisville
          2010: WRs at New Mexico
          2011: QBs & Recruiting Coordinator at Utah State
          2012: OC & QBs at Utah State
2013-2018: HC at Utah State

Keith’s Take: Quite literally nothing here gets me excited. Wells is 45 years old and yes, he has some experience. Not reflected above is that he was also the JV Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator at Navy (yes that’s a thing). When Kliff Kingsbury was hired I was vocal at the time about not liking the hire, I felt he needed seasoning with so little experience and none as a head coach. I was struck again by that this week seeing replays of that introduction in the USA, I didn’t realize how young he really was when the 100-hour journey resulted in his hiring.

Obviously, this is not the same situation. Wells is older, has much more experience, and has been a head coach for six seasons. However, I’m still not impressed with the quality of the experience. He’s never darkened the door of a Power 5 program, even as a grad assistant. He’s never even sniffed the types of resources that Texas Tech has to work with and while that seems like a positive, to have new resources, is he prepared to handle them?

Brian’s Take: One of the knocks on Kliff, when he came in, was that he didn’t have too many stops, which means he didn’t have as many coaching connections. This was reflected in Kliff’s first few coaching staffs, which were mostly comprised of his friends as much out of necessity as it was out of desire. Needless to say, it didn’t work out, and the staff was overhauled many times until its last two or so years, but by then most patience had dried up.

While none of the schools are very flashy, Wells was able to spend a lot of time coaching under the likes of Steve Kragthorpe and Mountain West coaching legend Rocky Long (whose coaching trees includes Bronco Mendenhall, Derek Mason, & Jeff Brohm). All this to say, Wells has had time to build relationships and meet other coaches. We’ll talk about this later, but we’ve seen that being able to hire good coordinators & assistants is crucial. It tanked Kliff early on, and it saved Wells at Utah State. Furthermore, getting to be the recruiting coordinator gives me hope that he could know his stuff. If he was the RC in 2011 at Utah State, then that means he played a part in getting QB Chuckie Keeton to stick with his commitment, which worked out quite well for the Aggies.

THE RECORD

Matt Wells was the offensive coordinator under head coach Gary Andersen for the Aggies’ 11-2 season in 2012. When Andersen left to fill the head coaching position at Wisconsin, Wells was quickly promoted to be the head man. He was named Mountain West Coach of the year in 2014 and again earlier this week the same day he emerged as Texas Tech’s top candidate.

The Aggies’ offense and defense struggled in recent years and Wells found himself in a unique position of being a hot commodity his first two seasons, feeling his seat get hot, and then right back to being in conversations. This season the coaching carousel stopped at his stop and he’s found himself with a Power 5 opportunity.

Head Coaching Record

Year Overall Conference Conf. Standing Bowl
2013 9-5 7-1 1st Poinsettia Bowl vs. #24 N. Illinois
Won 21-14
2014 10-4 6-2 T-2nd New Mexico Bowl vs. UTEP
Won 21-6
2015 6-7 5-3 T-2nd Idaho Potato Bowl vs. Akron
Lost 21-23
2016 3-9 1-7 6th
2017 6-7 4-4 T-4th Arizona Bowl vs. NMSU
Lost 20-26
2018 10-2 7-1 T-1st Idaho Potato Bowl or
Armed Forces Bowl
(Projected)

Keith’s Take: Matt Wells appears to be a capable coach, his good seasons have been positive and even in a low energy, low budget, low attendance, secluded place like Utah State University in Logan, Utah he’s been able to find success. However, when you dig a little deeper into Wells’ record I find some things that concern me.

Offense
First and foremost, Wells is just as responsible for going 15-24 in the bad years (maybe more) as he is going 29-11 in the good years. Wells took over an offense that was ranked 27th nationally in points scored. They dropped to 50th, then 81st, up to 64th, then to 108th in 2016. Now the offense has risen like a rocket since hiring a new offensive coordinator in David Yost in February 2017. Yost’s first year the offense jumped back up to 51st and this year they are 3rd in the nation, behind only Alabama and Oklahoma. Yost deserves a lot of credit for the offensive turnaround – but does Wells?

Defense
Wells took over a USU squad that was ranked 27th nationally in points allowed. In 2014 they dropped to 13th, then there was a nosedive to 61st and finally 73rd in 2016. Utah State alum and longtime assistant Frank Maile was named co-defensive coordinator in addition to his duties as defensive line coach (which he also coached in a very successful Vanderbilt defense) and the defensive unit improved to 67th nationally. This year, Keith Patterson was added as co-defensive coordinator with Maile and the defense jumped back up to 38th. Once again, Maile and Patterson deserve credit for a defensive resurgence – but does Wells?

In both of these instances does Wells deserve credit for the hires, or the blame for three years of serious decline?

My final record concern is Wells’ record against winning teams. Wells has a record of 14-31 against teams that finish at least .500. That’s a .452 winning percentage as opposed to his overall .564 career winning percentage.

2013: 4-4, 9-5 overall
2014: 3-4, 10-4 overall
2015: 3-7, 6-7 overall
2016: 1-8, 3-9 overall
2017: 0-6, 6-7 overall
2018: 3-2, 10-2 overall


Now I get it, this stat is self-defeating because beating a team may hurt your record by dropping them below .500, but it’s still an interesting indicator and speaks strongly to the level of competition Wells has been facing in the Mountain West and his non-conference schedule.

Brian’s Take: I’ll say this first: I’m not going to do the whole “but he did it at Utah State!” line because I think that’s a crutch that a lot of people are using to justify the hire. He exceeded the expectations of people that had extremely low expectations, and as our friend @skippable pointed out on Twitter, people that win Coach of the Year are usually clearing very low bars set for their team. That said, he inherited a Utah State team that was trending upward, and was able to maintain success in the first two years, then hold serve in conference play every year except for 2016.

In terms of losses, out-of-conference by nature is going to be tough sledding for Utah State compared to what we see at Tech, as they’re a G5 team that Power 5 teams will schedule for warm-ups, and they aren’t expected to come out on top of too many of those games. In Wells’ tenure, they played Tennessee, Wake Forest, USC, Washington, Wisconsin, & Michigan State. The Mountain West itself is known for turning out some scrappy teams and is usually an incubator for P5 programs. Regardless of where you are, only logging a losing conference record once in your six-year tenure is pretty good, and it’s not something we can boast at Tech. Furthermore, Wells split the series with regional rival BYU, significant because before 2013 it took 30 years for Utah State to accumulate three wins against them.

I mentioned it in the Resume section, but a vast majority of head coaches are only going to go as far as the staff they have takes them. Kingsbury is arguably one of the best offensive minds in the country, but we saw what happens when a coach spends too much time with one part of the ball, and what happens when a staff isn’t in place to adequately compensate for deficiencies. It is very easy to point at that dip in overall record, and it’s even more glaring when looking at the slide in offensive & defensive rankings (his area of expertise). Myriad factors could contribute to this, whether it being a first-time head coach getting his feet under him and learning to delegate, but the important thing is this: the issues were diagnosed, and Wells was able to make some fantastic hires to remedy the situation.

Look, it’s really hard to point at three losing seasons in a row and put lipstick on that pig. Those records are just facts, and we’re not blaming it on geography, or how Utah State is the third school in Utah and has to fight for scraps, or how the Aggies are a historically bad team so it’s what we should expect from them. Wells is now our coach, he holds responsibility for those years, and you have to take it into account. What matters to me is this: it was a dip, not a dive, which means that the bottom has been defined, and the team crawled back up. To get out of those holes, you have to recruit through them (selling kids with a 3-9 record can’t be easy), figure out what your issues are, and course correct. Wells and his staff did those things, they clawed back to 10 wins, and they’re reaping the benefits.

THE RECRUITING

Below is a breakdown of the national and conference rank of the recruiting classes under Matt Wells’ responsibility as well as the year before and after him (where available). Remember from above, Wells served as a recruiting coordinator at Tulsa and New Mexico, so I think it’s fair to look include those in this look.

Recruiting Rankings

Team Year National Rank Conference Rank
Tulsa (Pre-Wells) 2001 55 2
Tulsa 2002 66 5
Tulsa 2003 73 7
Tulsa 2004 68 4
Tulsa 2005 58 2
Tulsa 2006 98 7
Tulsa (Post-Wells) 2007 83 7
New Mexico
(Pre-Wells)
2006 68 1
New Mexico 2007 95 9
New Mexico 2008 96 8
New Mexico
(Post Wells)
2009 106 10
Utah State (Pre-Wells) 2011 108 9
Utah State (OC) 2012 111 9
Utah State 2014 111 9
Utah State 2015 96 5
Utah State 2016 92 5
Utah State 2017 104 9
Utah State 2018 109 9


Keith’s Take: 
I’m not going to knock Matt Wells for not having top 50 recruiting classes considering the programs he’s been in. I’ll give Brian a head start on this one too and say that what he’s done with the level of recruits he’s had access to has been positive, even impressive. My concern here is seeing the swings from Matt Wells and the dips he appears to be responsible for, similar to offensive and defensive ratings. At Utah State, he appears to have enjoyed a bump from strong 2013 & 2014 campaigns but never found significant improvement there.

Wells’ ties to Texas have been called into question often during this 100-hour process. I’m not going to lay too heavily on this because I think there are connections to the state there, but the strongest of those appears to be the defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who is reportedly coming with Wells to Texas Tech. The weakness in that is that coordinators leave. Will he retain guys like Clay McGuire or Emmett Jones?

Brian’s Take: I mean, the numbers in those conference rankings speak for themselves, and as I stated previously, I refuse to buy into the “but it’s at Utah State!” argument because I loathe it. As Keith states, what he’s done with the recruits he’s been given is incredibly impressive and shows that the coaching staff knows what kind of players they need to succeed in their system. Sound familiar? We’ve beaten our chests on this for 20 years; Texas Tech, home of the gritty 2-star player (and beloved gritty 2-star sports blogs). LOOK AT ALL THE GRIT COMING OUT OF LOGAN, UTAH. Utah State currently has seven Texans on the roster, but Wells & Co. are about to have comparatively unprecedented (for them) access to Texas, with the added benefit of not having to sell parents to let their kids move two days away.

A lot of people, including me, have harped on his Texas ties, and we’ve also seen the requisite “har har you don’t have to be from a state to coach in it” takes, which is incredibly reductive to the argument. Wells will need his staff to spearhead recruiting, to be the facemen, and Wells will need to have the charisma to seal the deal. He’s not a name brand, so he’ll need to defer to his staff that does have the extensive Texas ties (Patterson and god-willing a retained Emmett Jones) to do most of the heavy lifting. What’s important is that he come up with a vision that’s going to sell Tech post-Kingsbury. His recruiting rankings weren’t impressive at Utah State but he still found success. Hopefully the resources he’ll get in Lubbock will amplify whatever his innate recruiting abilities are.

THE FINAL WORD

As we said early on, we’re in no way ignorant to the grumblings and outright Chicken Little protestations of doom and destruction coming from Red Raider Nation. We wanted to throw out both sides of this discussion and hopefully give everyone something to think about. However, I think we were both surprised at what we found.

Keith’s Take: I dug deep into Wells and came out the other side feeling more optimistic that when I began. Wells is a coach that’s seen a lot of situations, challenges, and has slogged from the bottom. He’s worked hard to build himself into a coach that deserves a shot at a Power 5 school. Nothing has been handed to him, and I like that. It didn’t serve my side of the argument, but Brian’s points about Utah State’s non-conference schedule are exactly right, being in a Group of 5 school leaves them hamstrung to take their lumps and get payouts. Utah State opened their season in East Lansing at Michigan State where they lost 31-38. Michigan State’s Defensive S&P+ rating is currently #2 – Utah State is the only team this season to score over 30 on the Spartans.

Brian’s Take: I did not feel great about this hire starting out and it’s kind of frustrating to just chalk it up to blind faith in Kirby Hocutt. This must be expressed again, he hired Al Golden; so not every egg he lays is. . . golden. I’m sorry, I honestly did not mean to do that.  If you saw me on Twitter you know I was incredibly outspoken on how much I did not want to go this direction, especially when I looked at the offensive & defensive rankings Keith pointed out. However, we took the fork in the road, and this is where we are now, and I desperately, desperately want to write a 3000 word apology post. I have no shame in admitting I was wrong, as day-to-day it’s my general state of being. Wells has pulled himself out of nosedives, and he’s about to inherit a roster that’s probably more talented than anything he’s had the past 6 years. It’s completely OK to be very skeptical of this hire, it’s OK to have reservations, but it’s essential we let Wells do his thing. That is, of course, why they play the games. Kirby has shown to be a great judge of both character and ability and his comments illustrate the qualities he’s found in his best coaches, and they are present here. We are all admittedly on the outside looking in and have not met Matt Wells; the only things we have are a series of numbers on a website. At some point, we have to trust the 5th highest paid athletic director in the country. The onus is on Wells to deliver, and we feel better than we did that he will. If not? T h a t ‘ s  w h a t  t h e  l i q u o r  i s  f o r.

Conclusion: Neither of us thinks Wells is a slam dunk, guaranteed success, natty-next-year hire. But we are both cautiously optimistic that he will be successful at Texas Tech in the years to come. This is obviously a step up for him, but Tech is also getting an upgrade in experience, success, and according to Kirby Hocutt – lessons learned. If there’s one thing we should all be able to agree with, it’s that Kliff Kingsbury never seemed to learn from the previous season enough to move beyond the same struggles. Penalties, late-season slides, overcoming adversity and injuries, and clock and game management are a few examples of areas that Kingsbury continued to struggle despite the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

Finally, head coaches are defined by their hires and their ability to manage highly qualified employees, delegate, and guide the big ship of team, staff, recruiting, and a lot of outside obligations. Many have felt that Kliff Kingsbury just wasn’t a head coach guy, we all respect how hard he worked, but are 17 hour days required if you’re delegating and letting your staff do their jobs at the high level they should be capable of? Great managers hire good people and get out of their way. Brent Venables’ is in a dream position at Clemson because he’s well paid and Dabo Swinney lets him run his defense. It appears that Matt Wells may have figured that out with guys like Keith Patterson, Frank Maile, and David Yost.

Sometimes a cliche is the best way to say what you mean, this time I’ll say time will tell. But I think we’re going to like the story we’re about to be a part of. And not that any of you care about Stewart Mandel the national media, but we’re not alone.

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