“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
R. Buckminster Fuller
Being a head coach in college football is tough. Like it’s really hard. In college football, one would imagine being the new head coach in town would come with a simple business principle; win more football games than the last guy. It also stands to reason that a coach should get four full seasons before getting evaluated. The coach would now be operating with a roster 100% of his own players/implement culture/implement playbook/etc. But operating in a $4 billion business doesn’t leave much room for patience. Matt Wells was fired as the head coach at Texas Tech without even finishing his third season on the job. How exactly did the administration arrive at the decision to move on from Wells?
Timeline Is Not Unheard Of
Based on a 2017 article, roughly 68% of fifth-year seniors will play for another coach during their college career. At the end of the 2019 season, Florida State fired Willie Taggart after two seasons. Matt Wells is now the fifth FBS coach to be fired before the calendar changes to November. According to Sports Illustrated, these are “the most firings over the first two months of the season in at least a decade—and maybe, experts say, ever.”
Any outsider to the Texas Tech program was asking themselves, “Why is Texas Tech firing a coach who is currently 5-3, and could reach a bowl game for the first time since 2017?” This is a totally fair point. After all, Texas Tech is not a blue-blood program of college football. It has zero Big 12 conference championships. Texas Tech hasn’t won 10 games since 2008. And there is this from Max Olson at The Athletic:
Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Baylor, Houston, SMU, Rice and 89 other FBS schools have hit 10 wins at least once since then. They haven’t finished inside the AP Top 25 since 2010, but 82 other schools have. Not once in program history have they finished in the AP poll’s top 10.
Wells did have to deal with all the restrictions that came while playing through the Covid-19 outbreak. Knocking on the door of a bowl season in the third season, given the history of the program and getting through Covid-19, seems extremely unfair to fire a coach.
Wells Was Struggled Out Of The Gate
Coach Matt Wells was introduced as the Red Raider head coach on December 1st, 2018. Expectations were relatively low going into the season. The team had just gone 35-40 in six seasons under Kliff Kingsbury. Wells was able to guide the Red Raiders to a 2-0 start before going on the road and losing to an Arizona team that would finish 4-8 by a score of 28-14. Struggling to score against Arizona was a bit of a head-scratcher for the Red Raider faithful. But after coming off a beat down from the Sooners, Texas Tech upset Oklahoma State at home. The Red Raiders were 3-2 and things were looking up.
Texas Tech would travel to Waco to square off against a Baylor team that would finish the 2019 seasons 11-2. Texas Tech pushed Baylor to overtime. And while the officials had a costly non-fumble call, this was tangible evidence this program could compete. It was supposed to be a sign that Matt Wells had the program trending in the right direction and doing so ahead of schedule.
First Major Blunder
A loss to Iowa State the following week was not a complete surprise. But what transpired the following week in Lawerence was something that would linger like a bad odor over the Wells’ tenure in Lubbock. Coming into that game, Kansas had only won six Big 12 games in the previous 10 seasons. They had not won more than three games in any of those previous 10 seasons. Texas Tech got into a rock fight with the Jayhawks that came down to a last-second field goal attempt that would have won the game for the Jayhawks.
Kansas would then go over 700 days before winning another football game and has yet to win another Big 12 game since this wild ending. For a program that had been hovering around .500 for the last six seasons, losing to Kansas would not ever be acceptable. But to lose in the fashion they did start sounding alarms early in Red Raider Nation. While the Red Raiders would beat West Virginia the next week, they would close out the season losing the next two games at home to TCU and Kansas State by a combined five points. Matt Wells would go 4-8 in his first season. As much promise as the first half of the season showed the second half wiped it all away.
Repeat Second Season
It is worth noting that in 2017, Texas Tech had just opened a brand new $48 million Sports Performance Center. It included upgrades to the locker room, players lounge, weight room, and new practice fields. Investments like this bring with it ramped up pressure to win football games. Favorite son Kliff Kingsbury ultimately was let go because he couldn’t get over the .500 hump. Wells needed to show major progress in year two. Otherwise, the heat on his seat was going to be ramped up.
The 2020 college football season deserves a look back in its entirety because of the obstacles associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. It presented plenty of challenges all programs had to overcome. However, Texas Tech was opening against FCS Houston Baptist to start the season. Houston Baptist was entering only their seventh football season after going 5-7 the previous season. The Red Raiders jumped out early and maintained a 21-10 at halftime. However, in something that would, unfortunately, become a trend, Texas Tech could not pull away from a team with lesser talent. In fact, Houston Baptist failed on a two-point conversion with 3:23 left in the game as Tech would survive 35-33. It wasn’t exactly a performance that would inspire much confidence, but good teams win even when they don’t play their best right?
Horns Down…Then Back Up Within Four Minutes
The very next week, Texas Tech appeared to have turned a new corner (at least that’s what the hope was). Texas Tech was down at the half to the Longhorns, but 21 third-quarter points pushed them to a 42-38 lead. The Red Raiders would extend the lead to 56-41 with only 3:13 left in the game. THIS was the moment Texas Tech fans (and more importantly, boosters and donors) were craving:
Instead of a party down University Ave and Broadway Street, the Red Raiders found a way to surrender a touchdown in four plays that covered 59 yards and only ran 34 seconds off the clock. Texas then manages to recover the ensuing onside kick, and the pit in the stomach of those who support the Red Raider program returned immediately. Sure enough, not only does Texas score the needed touchdown and two-point conversation to tie it up, but ended the game quickly in overtime.
Texas Tech never beat an opponent in 2020 by more than seven points. In fact, the total margin of victory in their four victories was a combined 13 points. In their six losses, the point differential was a combined 89 points. Texas Tech was losing games by an average of 2+ touchdowns and was just getting by in their wins. The offense was lacking creativity and explosiveness. Even with 56 against Texas and 44 against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech still finished only 57th in the country in points scored at 29.1 per game. Texas Tech suffered its first back-to-back four-win seasons since 1984-1985. Kingsbury had one four-win season but bounced back the next year with a seven-win campaign.
Changes Had To Be Made
Coach Matt Wells had to make some changes to the coaching staff. This program had shown zero progress on the field, and the win-loss record had actually regressed. When there is pressure on the head coach of any program, the last card they can play to save their job is to make changes to the coaching staff. Wells knew that offensive coordinator David Yost was going to have to be replaced. Looking back, it appears that if Wells wasn’t willing to get rid of Yost, he was going to be fired.
But go back to what Fuller said, Wells had to “build a new model.” How could he have built something in one regular season and one weird, COVID-riddled season? Maybe bringing on beloved Texas Tech son Sonny Cumbie as the new offensive coordinator would be the piece to unlock this new model. Wells also brought in some key transfers to bolster the depth and talent of the roster immediately.
Wells’ seat was definitely warm coming into the 2021 season. Remember, the $48 million sports performance center was only four years old. In October of 2021, there would be an announcement of a brand-new $50 million Womble Football Center. Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt had done a tremendous job in securing funding for these football facilities. But with these financial commitments brought with them the expectations of more wins immediately. What the football team had demonstrated in the first two seasons under Wells was simply not good enough. But there was a path to a bowl game in 2021. Texas Tech had to get off to a fast start this season.
Stuck In First Gear During First Halves
Matt Wells and company were able to navigate non-conference play and start the season 3-0. But a slow start against Houston, and another nail-biter against another FCS team at home (28-22 against Stephen F. Austin), those who were following closely knew the undefeated record wasn’t as strong as it might suggest. Those skeptics got their first confirmation at the hands of the Texas Longhorns. Texas Tech never forced Texas to attempt a punt in a 70-35 beatdown in Austin. But the Red Raiders bounced back even with injuries beginning to mount (including losing their starting quarterback for the 2nd straight season) against West Virginia. At 4-1, returning back to Lubbock to take on a very beatable TCU team, Texas Tech found themselves with another opportunity to show this program had turned a corner.
In front of a homecoming crowd, under the lights of Jones AT&T, Texas Tech came out against the Horned Frogs flatter than roadkill on Highway 82 in Dickens. It was 35-10 at the half, and by the time the 52-31 debilitating loss ended, the Red Raiders had surrendered over 300 rushing yards for the second time in three games. Texas Tech was still looking as if it didn’t even belong in the Big 12. This loss appeared to be the one that officially turned the fan base from mad to apathetic.
Apathy Is “Rock Bottom”
When a fan base is mad, it means there is still passion amongst the base. Passionate fans still will support a team. Support equals money. When the fan base becomes apathetic, the support is gone. And when the money starts drying up, people will lose their jobs. Even with a convincing win against Kansas, which put the Red Raiders at 5-2, when the Kansas State game kicked off, it was clear apathy had set in.
There was not a single student in the south endzone, with the exception of the band for the early morning kickoff. This program was one win away from finally getting back to bowl season, and at kickoff, images of the stadium showed a spotty crowd at best (even though announced attendance would suggest otherwise). But getting to the sixth win against a team that had lost three straight meant an opportunity to build momentum. A 14-0 start to the game suggested the Red Raiders were ready to FINALLY seize their moment.
3rd And 34
With a 24-10 lead at halftime, Texas Tech came out and played possibly the worst half of football in Wells’ short stint as head coach. If all of the above numbers don’t illustrate how bad it was, the worst single play came on 3rd and 34. With 11:43 remaining in the game, the defense forced Kansas State into a lengthy 3rd down. Wildcat quarterback Skylar Thompson completed what appeared to be a meaningless 15-yard completion. But thanks to a personal foul against the Texas Tech defense, the Wildcats would then drive down to score the eventual game-winning touchdown. It was the newest and lowest point from the on-the-field product since Wells took over. Turns out, this meltdown was the final straw.
Avoiding Lame Duck Season
In 2014, Les Miles won only eight games after winning at least ten in the previous four (including one national championship). In 2015, he started the season 7-0 before losing three straight. The heat around Miles was ramping up. But due to late-season wins against Texas A&M and Texas Tech in a bowl game, LSU would finish 9-3. But the record did not reflect the feelings of the boosters and athletic department towards Miles. They were ready to fire him at the end of the 2015 season. But with a 9-3 record, they couldn’t justify it. However, in 2016, an opening season loss to Wisconsin and then losing on the last play to Auburn was enough to get Miles fired with a 2-2 record to start the 2016 season.
In Hocutt’s press conference after firing Wells, he mentioned that the firing was “inevitable.” Similar to the Miles situation, it appears Hocutt and the donors did not want Wells to have the chance to “save” his job with one more win. There isn’t a reasonable fan out there that expected Texas Tech to be competing for Big 12 championships in year three under Matt Wells. But those same fans expected to see a team competing with the rest of the conference, not give up 70 in regulation. Not too lateral a blocked field goal to give Kansas another chance. Not to get a penalty on 3rd and 34.
Matt Wells didn’t have a great record at Texas Tech (13-17). But it was the lack of growth on the field that lead to the quick-firing. There is certainly a case to be made that Matt Wells never got a fair opportunity to build the new model that made the existing model obsolete. However, in a college football environment where the money invested into a program will only continue to increase, the pressure and expectations to win quicker with a new coach will only continue to go up. No matter where Texas Tech goes from here, coach better build their new model quicker than ever before if sustained success is to be achieved in Lubbock, Texas.