Aaron Wellman returns to a changed home in Indiana
New Indiana strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman was announced as the Hoosiers' next strength and conditioning coach Tuesday.
"There aren't a lot of chances to come back home," Wellman said when he was introduced via teleconference.
But home has taken a different shape since the 1990s.
Aaron Wellman had just graduated from Manchester University with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science when the Bill Mallory Era came to an end with a 3-8 season in 1996. Since 1984, Mallory had led the Indiana program to the most consistent heights it had ever seen – six bowl appearances, six winning seasons and the last eight-win season before 2019’s historic run.
Former Indiana quarterback Cam Cameron was hired away from the Washington Redskins in December 1996 to succeed Mallory, and Wellman was preparing to leave his hometown of Ligonier, Indiana, in January to pursue his master’s in applied sports science at IU. The two descended upon Bloomington with new beginnings ahead.
Wellman, who played safety at Manchester, served an internship in Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning program and had a general understanding of his hopes to continue his passion for the weight room in some capacity at a professional level, wrote a letter to Cameron with the faintest confidence that the new IU head coach would receive or read it, let alone give him a place on his staff.
“He talked about his goals, his aspirations,” Cameron said of Wellman’s letter. “I’ve read thousands of letters over the years. That one just caught my attention. I just said, ‘I want to get this guy out here and talk to him.’”
Wellman didn’t include a call-back number in his letter, so Cameron searched for the Wellman family’s phone number and made a call to Ligonier. Four days later, on New Year’s Eve 1996, Wellman found himself in front of Cameron, interviewing for a graduate assistant spot on the 1997 team. Cameron hired him before he left town, and Wellman returned to Ligonier, packed his things and was back to Bloomington within 48 hours to begin his career as a strength and conditioning coach.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Wellman said about his thoughts during his drive away from and back to Bloomington. “I was just excited and knew I was ready to do whatever it took to be successful. There was no job too big or small. I knew I wanted to develop athletes. I didn’t have a vision mapped out for my career. All I knew was I had a great opportunity, and I wanted to work hard every day to see where that opportunity went.”
That initial opportunity sparked a career that found itself at Michigan State, Ball State, San Diego State, Michigan, Notre Dame and the New York Giants. And after nearly 20 years away from Bloomington, Indiana hired Wellman to its staff in early-March, making him the third-highest paid strength and conditioning coach in the nation at $700,000 per year.
“He’s worth every penny,” said Cameron, who was hired by the San Diego Chargers after being let go by Indiana in 2001. “In fact, he might be underpaid.”
When the news broke that Indiana had hired the New York Giants’ strength coach, it wasn’t necessarily a shock. Head coach Tom Allen had noted that former strength and conditioning coaches David Ballou and Matt Rhea had lifted the prestige of the position in Bloomington through their knowledge in analytically driven training methods and guidance on what was needed to give Indiana some type of boost, such as equipment that Wellman said was equal to what he used in New York.
The shocking aspect of the Wellman hire was the figure Indiana was prepared to invest in him. Once combining Ballou and Rhea’s salaries – $400,000 and $375,000, respectively – it wasn’t as surprising, but consolidating those numbers into one meant that for the last two years, Indiana had been investing as much into its strength and conditioning personnel as some of the top programs in the country.
“If you aren’t willing to pay the guy that’s going to be around your team more than anybody, then we all know the message that sends, that you really aren’t committed to competing for a Big Ten Championship,” Cameron said. “This says to me that Indiana wants to compete in football for a Big Ten Championship.”
The primary channel Allen used in developing a relationship with Wellman was Ballou. Ballou played under Cameron and Wellman when he was a fullback with the Hoosiers in the late-90s, and Wellman described him as one of the players who loved the weight room and that his progressive success in the industry, as he moves on to Alabama, makes sense based on his observations.
Wellman had lost most touch with Ballou for many years after they both left Indiana, but they reconnected when Ballou followed Wellman as Notre Dame strength and conditioning coaches – Wellman leaving after the 2015 season, Ballou joining after the 2016 season. Once Ballou took the job at Indiana in 2018, he called Wellman to “talk shop,” Wellman said, and Wellman spoke to the Indiana team when he visited a year ago.
A relationship with Wellman already existed with the current Indiana staff, so understanding how Wellman commanded an NFL or a college weight room wasn’t much of a question, and his resume spoke for itself.
“A guy like Aaron doesn’t get to be the strength coach with the New York Giants by accident,” Cameron said.
Wellman was hired on as an assistant at Michigan State before being hired by Brady Hoke at Ball State for his first head strength coach job.
“Going through the interview process, we realized that we saw eye-to-eye on most things, training, developing a culture within a program, leadership, discipline,” Wellman said of Hoke. “it seemed like a natural fit.”
Hoke and his staff found incremental success at Ball State that culminated in a 12-1 season in 2008, and when Hoke was hired as the head coach at San Diego State, he brought Wellman along with him. When he was hired as the head coach at Michigan in 2011, he brought Wellman again. The two coaches worked together for 11 years, appearing in six bowl games and winning two of them, including the Sugar Bowl in 2011.
With the Giants, Wellman was hired by former head coach Ben McAdoo in 2016 and was retained by the next two head coaches during his tenure – Pat Shurmur and Joe Judge – thanks, in part, because of his success in mitigating injuries.
Cameron touched on Wellman’s “coaching endurance” in that he, and many other strength coaches alike, will work long hours to ensure players are improving. Already, Wellman is applying that concept to his position at Indiana, assigning individual workouts to each player based solely on what equipment is available to them at their homes during the COVID-19 outbreak. Allen said he spoke with several players and coaches that have mutual connections to Wellman, and they confirmed what was already known and assumed.
“The overlying theme was this guy will do whatever it takes to help you develop as a person, as a player, whether it's from nutrition to your sleep habits to the physical things you're doing in your running, in your lifting and just your training your body and just the holistic approach to helping him become the best possible,” Allen said. “And there was no time limit put on that. It's like, okay, he'll spend until three, four in the morning if he has to. It's a whatever-it-takes mindset, and to me, that's how we're going to be successful here.”
Wellman was hired by the New York Giants in January 2016 after a six-win season, and shortly into his first season the next fall, his parents, Jerry and Jane Wellman, drove the 10 hours from Ligonier to New York City to see the Giants play for the first time. At that point, the Giants had won two games in the first two weeks and would eventually win 11 to clinch a playoff berth.
Aaron’s parents spent the weekend in New York and made the trip back to Ligonier on Monday. Two hours after arriving home, Jerry suffered a stroke that hospitalized him for nearly a week before he passed away at 69 years old the next Sunday.
“It was extremely tough because we were halfway across the country,” Aaron said. “But we were also blessed to have spent the last weekend with him.”
In understanding who Aaron is as a person and a coach, it’s important to understand Jerry and the influence he had on Aaron.
Jerry hailed from Gary, Indiana, and from a family of steel mill workers. He had a “blue collar” work ethic, Aaron said, and he was widely viewed by those in the community as a person of high character and high integrity. He was responsible for convincing Aaron to write his letter to Cameron, even though Aaron was sure he wouldn’t be able to reach the new Indiana head coach.
Jerry and Jane both worked within the West Noble School Corporation for decades. That’s where Jerry began his teaching career as a health teacher, and Jane eventually retired from one of the elementary schools in the district. Jerry coached football, baseball and wrestling, was the president of the Ligonier Lions Club, was an active member of the Stones Hill Community Church and served as the principal at Central Noble High School before retiring as a professor at Trine University.
In a town with just over 4,000 residents in a county with a total of 47,000 residents in Northeast Indiana, it doesn’t take long for members of a community to learn who each other are, especially when teachers and coaches are involved in the community.
“It’s safe to say the Wellmans are very well-respected in the community and really well-known,” said Dale Marano, who recently retired as a teacher at West Noble and coached Aaron in football. “I think there’s a sense of pride that Aaron has done so well.”
With Marano, his quarterbacks coach, Aaron played quarterback and safety for three seasons (1989-91) and led West Noble to a conference championship as a sophomore. After that season, Aaron began to take his strength and conditioning seriously, during a movement in sports that focused on lifting weights to increase athletic performance. Marano said he remembers a drastic physical change in Aaron between his junior and senior years, which carried over into his college days at Manchester, after years of being an undersized athlete.
There was an intensity about Aaron, Marano said, a certain discipline that aligns itself with success. It appeared in the smallest parts of their relationship. Marano said he remembers Aaron only communicating with Marano in military time, though neither of them had connections to the military.
“It was never four o’clock,” Marano said. “It was always 1600 hours.”
As he progresses throughout his career, Marano, who keeps in touch with Aaron through intermittent text messages, and current West Noble football coach Monte Mawhorter, who has been coaching West Noble since the turn of the century, have followed along with Aaron from afar, as much as anyone can follow along with a process, in strength and conditioning, that tends to happen behind closed doors. The success is understood, though.
“I thought Ball State was pretty impressive. Then he ends up at Michigan, Notre Dame, the Giants,” Mawhorter said. “For a guy who’s coming from a little town like Ligonier, that’s pretty impressive. We like to see successes anywhere we can. It’s hard to get any higher than he’s been.”
Within that pride is a connection drawn between Aaron, Jerry and Jane. At the core of who Aaron had become throughout his younger ages, Marano said, was the goodness that Jerry and Jane exuded and exude individually every day.
“It’s really been a pleasure watching his success from afar,” Marano said. “It kind of validates that good things happen for good people. When you think back, you remember those kids who were really good people, deep down to the core, and he had everything going for him.”
For Aaron it runs deeper than football, which runs parallel to the notion that Cameron mentioned in Aaron’s time at Indiana – always about the team, putting the players first. There aren’t a lot of chances to come back home, Aaron said when he was introduced Tuesday, but this time, Jerry isn’t in the state to welcome him.
Despite the loss, Aaron said he wants to honor his father's values, like he has since Jerry's passing in 2016, and like he did with his letter to Cameron that kicked off his career.
“When you lose a parent, they live on in the values they taught you. My dad does that for me,” Aaron said. “Like anything else, you miss him and you want to honor his legacy and things he taught you. Of course, it would be great to have him here. Unfortunately that’s not the reality, so I just have to honor him with the way I work and the way I live my life.”