Big 12 football: Why Texas Tech coach Matt Wells takes his hometown of Sallisaw everywhere he goes
ARLINGTON, Texas – Matt Wells stood behind a podium emblazoned with Texas Tech’s logo when he was introduced as the Red Raiders’ new football coach last December.
He started talking about Utah State where he’d been for eight years — the first two as an assistant, the past six as the head coach — and how important the people and the place had been to him.
“I ain’t standing here today … ,” he said before stopping himself. “Ain’t. Sorry.”
Then he stopped himself again.
“I guess that’s OK now in Texas, isn’t it?” he said as the crowd gathered that day in Lubbock burst into affirmative applause.
Wells knows this part of the country well. He grew up in Sallisaw, learning to play football in the small eastern Oklahoma town, then starring for the high school football team in the early 1990s. But since leaving home for college, he hasn’t lived this close to home since he was the tight end coach at Tulsa in the mid-2000s.
During Big 12 football media days earlier this week, Wells was clearly thrilled to be back within driving distance of Sallisaw.
“It’s nice to be closer to home for my mom to come see us play a little bit,” Wells said with a twinkle in his eye. “A bunch of friends and high school coaches have already made the trek down to Lubbock.
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“I don’t get back there near enough.”
But he takes Sallisaw everywhere he goes.
Wells was born in South Carolina, the son of an Army dentist stationed at Fort Jackson. But before Wells turned 2, the family moved to Oklahoma. His parents, Jim and Suzy, were Oklahomans and OU grads, and his dad had always been fascinated with Sallisaw. His favorite Sooner was Sallisaw native Steve Davis.
Even though Jim continued working as a dentist in Sallisaw, he also became the public-address announcer for the Black Diamonds. That meant lots of Friday nights at the football field for Matt.
“Just growing up there … I played three sports,” Wells said. “You grow up and that’s part of the culture of that town, and my parents raised us that way. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Culture is the thing Wells has preached most since being hired at Texas Tech. Earlier this week, he said it was the biggest key to his first season in Lubbock.
“We always talk about … what we do and how we do it,” he said. “What we do on offense. What we do on defense. Our weight room. Strength and conditioning with a major emphasis in nutrition, class, academics, all that stuff.
“But the key is to the ‘how’ … the physicalness, the toughness, the discipline.”
How his teams at Utah State did it was with a blue-collar mentality. Those Aggies didn’t always have a ton of talent — the state of Utah isn’t exactly teeming with five-star recruits — but they won at least nine games in three of Wells’ six seasons as head coach, including a pair of 10-win seasons.
Utah State, which had just two winning seasons between 1981 and 2010, became known as a mid-major program that regularly punched above its weight.
Instilling similar fight and passion at Texas Tech will be crucial. Despite having some of the best quarterbacks in college football over the past five or six years — reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes tops the list — the Red Raiders haven’t had a winning record since 2015 and haven’t won a bowl game since 2013.
But Wells says Texas Tech has the talent not to rebuild but reload.
Maybe that’s what you say when you’re trying to get players to buy in to a new staff and a new system, but Texas Tech’s conference losses to Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State and West Virginia last season were all by single digits. In Big 12 play, the Red Raiders never got blown out.
Add in the recent success of men's basketball, men's track and baseball, and it's easy to see why Wells is thinking big.
He believes, too, in his methods. Even though they have been developed over his years in college football at places like Navy, New Mexico and Louisville, he traces the roots of his ideology back to Sallisaw.
“It shaped who I am,” he said. “It’s the love of the game and the respect of the game that I think was instilled in me at an early age.”
He knows a vocabulary that includes ain’t comes from there, too. Such words regularly get him into trouble with his wife, Jen, who is a speech therapist. She often tells him, “Matt, you have a word-finding problem.”
But it sounds like her corrections might not hold as much weight as they used to.
“She’s got an issue,” Wells said during his introductory press conference, “because I’m back to ain’t, ya’ll and fixin’.”
The crowd roared its approval.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
About the series
Four Big 12 schools have new football coaches this year, and The Oklahoman is doing a four-part series on these newcomers:
Thursday: West Virginia’s Neal Brown
Friday: Kansas State's Chris Klieman
Saturday: Texas Tech's Matt Wells
Sunday: Kansas' Les Miles
MATT WELLS FILE
Family: Wife, Jen; children Jadyn, Ella, Wyatt
Playing experience: Utah State, QB (1993-96)
Coaching experience: Navy, QB/FB/WR (1997-2001); Tulsa, TE (2002-06); New Mexico, WR (2007-08); Louisville, QB (2009); New Mexico, WR (2010); Utah State, QB (2011), OC/QB (2012) and HC (2013-18).
Head coaching record: 44-34
Top accomplishment: Led Utah State to bowls in seven of the past eight years, including two 10-win seasons.