While Tom Wells was coaching boys basketball at La Porte, he confided to close friends over the years about a couple of programs that always intrigued him.
One was South Bend Riley. The other was Michigan City.
"I had success against those teams, but we didn't have as much ability in the locker room," Wells said. "Michigan City's had more Division I players than any other school in the Duneland (Conference)."
So as the Michigan City Area Schools approved Wells' hiring at Tuesday's board meeting, the move may come as a surprise to some, but not to those who knew of his interest in finally coaching a program with talent that fits his up-tempo philosophy.
"That's certainly a big part," Wells said. "I'm a self-proclaimed Rick Pitino disciple. It's a style of play I really enjoy and I've done it without the athleticism that's walking the halls at Michigan City High School. I watched some kids at the Y a time or two, and there are some kids who can do some things. They're really going to like to play that way."
Wells coached at Prairie Heights, Griffith and Portage before going to La Porte in 2002. He spent 15 years there before not being retained two years ago in a forced exit that lacked a real explanation. When former Wolves coach John Boyd's contract was not renewed last month, Wells' interest was immediately piqued in taking on the task of cracking the code at a school that hasn't won a sectional in its 24 years.
"I wasn't beating the bushes to get back in," said Wells, who spent the last two years officiating. "People thought with consolidating the schools (Elston and Rogers) it would be a winner, but they haven't gotten it done. It presents a challenge that I'm really, really motivated by and looking forward to."
The sixth coach in City boys hoops history takes over a program rumored to be in a state of flux with reports of several current players leaving and as many who didn't play before coming out for the team.
"It's not out of the ordinary to go through that stuff with all the things that are going down," Wells said. "I have a vision for the job, what it's going to take to get it done, and that (started) Tuesday morning. Part of the talk is going to be I don't have a magic wand. They have to share the vision, like the kids did at La Porte. We have to start working on habits. I'm not going to compare cultures, but it's going to be a little different for the kids. We have to have standards, priorities, and it may not be for everybody. One thing I've already done is check into grades. Some tough decisions will have to be made. We're going to lose some kids and that's OK. The strength of the team is the young kids. We've got 19 sophomores on the list."
Wells has met with prospective players three times and described the reception as "very, very good."
"I can tell you this, there are some kids who are really, really hungry," he said. "We can almost use football's success a little bit. It's not exactly apples and apples, 4A basketball and 5A football, but we take some of what Phil (Mason)'s done with organization and you see that you can do it."
By coincidence, Wells and Mason lived in the same neighborhood in Griffith when Wells coached the Panthers back in the 90s.
"I've known Phil for a long time," Wells said. "We've talked a lot. I've coached at the same place as (Russ) Radtke, (Craig) Buzea, and (Bob) Schellinger. If I can't get along with Phil, something's wrong."
Most importantly for Wells, his wife Laura was on board with him going back into the coaching grind.
"We've done it for 30 years," he said. "When I got started back at Prairie Heights, she was like, I don't mind doing it, but let's make it a family thing. You can't do it that long and not do it together. That's part of the success. Our kids were raised in the gym. They're older now, we've spent a lot more time together. Before long, the (M.C.) kids will be in the house. She's a big fan of blue and gray, more so than orange."
At 55, Wells didn't rule out coaching five to 10 years. Though their hirings aren't official, former City players Antonio Hurt and Will Walker are expected to be part of his staff.
"We couldn't be more thrilled to have a coach of Tom Wells' caliber step into this position," City A.D. Craig Shaman said. "He's proven himself at every level of high school basketball in the state of Indiana, he is very familiar with Michigan City and the DAC, and he is an excellent person who will work well with our student-athletes."