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Does Matt Wells carry the most pressure as a first-year Texas Tech football coach?

A look back at the creation of expectation in Texas Tech Football.

Texas Tech coach Matt Wells addresses media at Big 12 Media Days
Texas Tech Media

It’s been over three weeks since we’ve seen anybody don the Scarlet and Black for an athletic event. Texas Tech is fortunate enough to enjoy a shorter offseason from sports with a successful baseball team that takes us to the College World Series. That’s more than most schools can say. It does not excuse us, however, from the droll of nothing happening. Football season kicks off in less than fifty days and fans are getting a better taste of the anticipation and anxiety that accompanies waiting. The one question that steadily looms over all the queries and curiosities out there is “will Coach Wells be the answer?”

Wells was hired on as the head coach back in November of last year and articles have only continued to multiply. The unpopular choice. Unsexy. Disappointing hire by Hocutt. Matt Wells isn’t as cool as Kliff. Inability to reach Leach. The smut and commentary list goes on, and there’s little to gain from adding more to it so we’re taking an alternative approach. Lessen the shallowness in “the answer,” and look at what kind of attention the man has from the fanbase. I propose the alternative:

Does Matt Wells carry the most pressure as a first-year Texas Tech football coach?

An article from USA Today most comprehensively addresses the double-edged nature of this question. In “analysis: Which new college football coaches might succeed,” Ralph Russo tackles a list of 27 coaching changes from around the nation with Matt Wells coming in at No. 14. In his “analysis” he writes:

“If success is defined as better than Kingsbury, that seems like an attainable goal for Wells. If Red Raiders fans expect to replicate Mike Leach’s success in Lubbock, they’re probably setting themselves up to be disappointed.”

Whenever somebody like Russo reminds Tech fans that “success” should be considered having a defense with a heartbeat and maybe a .500 season, the aforementioned title is a bit fallacious. No Red Raider fan wants the word success to be synonymous with living at the mediocrity line. Our aspiration for breaking through expectations has dramatically increased alongside the meteoric rise of other athletic programs like basketball, baseball and track. For football there has been more of a parabolic trajectory with the peak being centered around one man.

AP

Fans and pundits enjoy pointing to Mike Leach as Texas Tech’ icon, and it makes sense why. As a leader he was innovative, courageous, and had a hell of a personality - the success that followed it only cemented that legacy. But the obscure figure of Leach didn’t happen upon Texas Tech in its desperation. He was coming in under the shadow of a Red Raider legend, Spike Dykes. Here’s where things get interesting.

Dykes is a monolithic figure in Tech football. Not only was he the longest tenured head coach who carried Tech through the Southwest and the Big 12 conferences, but he also ushered in fans’ bowl-season standard with seven bowl appearances. Dykes’ saga also brought to the life the underdog mentality of Texas Tech football. His Red Raiders became the bane of both in-state rivals Texas and Texas A&M, handing them a near punch-for-punch record across his 12 seasons.

The immortality of Dykes’ image in Tech football is more, in my mind, a celebration of his years of dedication rather than the overall production. He never had a 10-win season and only had four seasons where he hit the seven-win mark. So why the continued admiration? West Texas honors the tradition of grit and character - it’s why people like Chris Beard gel so easily here. Through twelve years Dykes proved he wasn’t short on either. He had created the archetype of a “good coach” for Lubbock. Through the good and the bad he was all in on Texas Tech.

The boot-wearing Lubbock native retired in 1999 with a career of 82 victories and 67 losses ( .550 ), and his replacement was anything but familiar. Mike Leach was an obsessive and eccentric guy from out west who went to school at BYU. For Lubbockites it was certainly difficult to move on from a man who had embodied West Texas so well to somebody who coached in a Finnish football league. On Leach’s side of things it was his first gig as a head coach in the United States and he was following the winningest coach in Tech history.

The first season, racked with expectations, was the worst of Leach’s time in Lubbock. His Red Raider team accumulated six losses, which hadn’t happened since 1994, and they placed fourth in the Big 12 South (their lowest ever). Leach kept up the tradition of making it to a bowl game but took a 40-27 beating from East Carolina in a game sponsored by Gallery Furniture (of all places). The 7-6 start was and wasn’t the beginning Leach had hoped for, but he remained determined to succeed.

After a sputtering first couple of years, Leach hit a stride in 2002 with his first nine-win season at the helm of his fantasy-clad pirate ship. Fans and others started taking notice, and people started to wonder if this wacky spread offensive scheme was the future. “Score more than your opponent” was as simple as a difficult plan could be, but for the next seven seasons Leach and the Red Raiders never had less than 8 wins on their record. The 2008 season was the pinnacle of Leach’s time at Tech. The big win over one of Texas’ best fielded squads cemented the legacy of Mike Leach and everything that he was about.

In 2009 he was fired amidst the allegation of the improper concussion protocol blah blah, we all know it. Leach parted ways with the program with a final career record of 84-43 ( .661 ), superseding Dyke’s winning percentage and upping the bar for Tech fans about where the football program could be. This consequentially birthed, what I see, as the deeper riff in the fanbase. On one hand you have the Dykes archetype: the West Texas beloved, “one of us,” and an upstanding character. He prioritized winning in an honest way with a balanced offensive and defensive talent. On the other hand you have the Leach archetype: the outsider, an overlooked prospect, a very strange human being. He prioritized winning at all costs, often offering immaculate offenses with below average defenses.

Leach’s successor would have to face a similar challenge when taking over the reigns. The decision came down to Tommy Tuberville, a longtime Auburn coach and (really) only candidate other than Ruffin McNeill. Tuberville inherited a program right at the awkward fissure between a team’s most victories through nine seasons and the forced departure of the very coach that made it happen. Fans were outraged. Fans were expectant of continued limelight. Fans needed a recharge and the Athletic Department delivered it somebody under the Leach archetype; at least as an outsider.

Tuberville’s first year was rocky. He managed to procure impressive wins over Missouri, Baylor and Houston but the losses were not anything you could “well, if this happened..” with. Leach’s era of finishing above fourth in the Big 12 South ended when Tech landed fifth in Tuberville’s inaugural season. His production only decreased over the last two seasons he coached, landing ninth in 2011 after the Big 12 realignment and tied for fifth in 2012 only ahead of Iowa State and Kansas. The era of winning was pulled from the hopeful hands of Tech fans and replaced by an era of apprehensiveness.

In 2012 Tuberville left his stain on Lubbock by resigning as head coach and taking up a job with Cincinnati before the bowl game. Fans, players, and the recruits he abandoned at a dinner were all baffled by the abrupt decision. The athletic department, which was/is now under the direction of Kirby Hocutt, frantically began a search to get Tech on the right track. Since Tuberville was the Leach archetype, it made sense for the administration to pursue somebody nearer to the Dykes archetype. Somebody with ties to Texas Tech; who wanted to be a part of the program. Luckily for Hocutt there was an obvious choice that was still looming around the Division I spectrum in Texas.

Kliff Kingsbury was everything Texas Tech fans needed. Tuberville, an outsider, had gone 20-17 ( .541 ) in his three seasons with an abysmal 9-17 conference record. It had proved to Lubbockites that to get their program on track again they would need to put somebody with a heart for the Scarlet and Black. Kingsbury was an excellent quarterback under the leadership of Leach, but unlike his mentor he would be much more integrated with the Red Raider culture than the pirate.

The Texas Tech protégé didn’t necessarily have the same pressure that Leach and Tuberville walked in on, but that didn’t mean it was absent. Kingsbury’s return was heralded by some as the second coming of Tech dominance. A brilliant offensive mind that could lead us to competitive conference records and possibly a berth in the new collegiate playoff system. He even had a cool phrase: “fortune favors the bold.” But beyond the flash and flare was the tougher reality of having an entire city putting their hope on Kingsbury to reclaim respect for Texas Tech.

His first season, racked with hopeful expectation and wonder, proved to be his most successful. A seven game win streak had Texas Tech turning heads again as they climbed up the AP poll to number 10 in the nation. A trip to Norman changed all of that, however, and began a five-game losing drag that were each worse than the last. Kingsbury remedied the slump by upsetting a 16th ranked Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, but the wheels-falling-off and being duct taped back on became a theme for Texas Tech football over the course of his tenure.

After six years without real traction, Kingsbury was let go with a final record of 35-40 ( .466 ) and 19-35 in conference. Reactions were mixed towards his withdrawal of the program. Unlike Dykes, Kingsbury didn’t have the luxury of tapping out after dedicating over a decade to the University. He came, he normalized mediocrity (even if he spoke adamantly against it), and he was removed. Hocutt knew as programs like baseball and basketball were rising up the ranks that football couldn’t be the program to regress. Not in Texas. Which is what brought the Athletic Department to think critically and bring in somebody off everyone’s radar.

In the Kingsbury void there were a number of familiar names that rose to the surface. Seth Littrell, Neal Brown, Brent Venables, Graham Harrell and even Dana Holgorsen. All names that garnered traction in the fan base; all names attachable to Texas Tech in one way or another. The writing on the wall, however, was that being connected to the Double T wouldn’t automatically equal success. Hocutt instead reached far into the state of Utah to bring over Matt Wells.

It took four games in Wells’ first year as a head coach for Utah State to make an impression that would last six years. Utah State took on a prolific USC team in 2013 that was supposed to be a cake walk for the Trojans. It was anything but as the Aggies brought USC to the wire and stifled an offensive juggernaut that averaged 30 points a game. Kiffin’s Trojans barely escaped with a 17-14 victory and the effort wasn’t lost in the coaching carousel.

Matt Wells falls into the Leach archetype in some respects and the Dykes archetype in others. He’s an outside guy. Like really outside. Wells never coached at a Power Five school prior to Tech, which immediately drew criticism from Tech fans. Wells is also a balanced scheme kind of coach, which earned ire with the older generation of Tech fans. In the Big 12 media days he mentioned that “I like scoring points, like anybody, but I enjoy winning games better. Defense will be an emphasis.” His record reflects that: Wells ran a near 50-50 split at Utah State with 440 runs and 422 passes attached to his his resume.

He’s also committed to honoring an Air Raid “like” playbook that relishes in an up-tempo, spread based formation - but noted that running in November is what separates the upper tier teams from the lower. A nostalgic piece of Wells’ staff for Red Raider fans is offensive coordinator David Yost, who emulates Leach’s offensive principles from his two years as an assistant at Washington State. But just how much are fans expecting after a decade of loss-heavy seasons?

In one camp you can expect that the rise of other programs under the direction of Hocutt has increased ambient pressure on the football program. It’s ludicrous to say the Spring of 2019 didn’t create a historic shift in expectations of Red Raider fans. With basketball, baseball, track, and pom squads becoming national contenders it is easy to understand why fans might have heightened expectations for Wells - another Hocutt hire. Yes, Hocutt hired Kingsbury but he’s admitted that Matt Wells gave him a similar feeling that he got from Tim Tadlock and Chris Beard. Hocutt equally added a level of pressure by claiming that Texas Tech would be elite in football again after the dismissal of Kingsbury.

In the other camp, that same success of other programs coupled with the lack of excitement from the football program could create ambivalence towards Wells. Some universities struggle with well-rounded athletic departments and their fan bases become laser focused on a singular sport. Texas Tech is fortunate, as mentioned earlier, to luxuriate in world-class programs to a point where football’s success has little influence on the department as a whole. Other fans may mock Texas Tech for its inadequacy in recent years, but those are the same fans that can only talk about football when their team is being demolished in other sports.

Regardless of either of these camps Coach Wells made it obvious that the success of other programs doesn’t bring him any additional pressure that he didn’t feel on November 29. “More than anything, it inspired me,” remarked Wells when asked about it at the Big 12 Media Days. Facade or no, Wells has plenty to prove with a team that hasn’t won a conference since 1994 under the direction of Dykes. The good news? It’s his first year and he strongly believes that his methodology at Utah State - the tough, blue-collar, underdog mentality - fits Lubbock and Texas Tech to a Double T.