The best thing about the University of Wyoming's experiencing another renaissance in football—once again slamming favored opponents, once again scratching back to the top of the tough, talented and too often neglected Western Athletic Conference after seven years in the valley of the shadow—is that it allows an opportunity to clear up some misconceptions. Coach Fred Akers, for one, admits he believed Wyoming to be no more than three blocks from the Canadian border when he was asked up from Texas to take the head coaching job two years ago. Blizzards in July is what Wyoming meant to Akers. And a predominantly Eskimo population.
Being as fast a learner as he is a mover, which is, as we shall see, plenty fast, it did not take Akers long to find out that Wyoming is a few blocks farther south than that. Or that there are no blizzards in July, only an occasional snowstorm (he was trapped in one going to Medicine Bow to give a pep talk last summer). And that the beguiling irregularities of the weather are such that even in late October one might awaken to the kind of breathtakingly beautiful day that the lucky ones there in Laramie awakened to last Saturday. There in shirt sleeves—well, would you believe alpaca sweaters?—they were treated to a breathtakingly typical WAC game, this one won by Wyoming over New Mexico 24-23.
The trouble with Wyoming has always been that it goes mostly unwitnessed. Besides Curt Gowdy, no one seems to have been there long enough to tell you anything about it. When you have said that it pushes up along the Great Divide, 7,000 feet high on the nation's backbone, and is pinned into Eastern TV spot-news oblivion by the Mountain Time Zone, you have said about as much as is ever said. Kevin McClain, the team's best defensive back and one of its four captains, came to Laramie straight from Denville, N.J. Looking out the window on that first airplane ride, Kevin recalls saying aloud to himself, "My God, what's that?"
What that was was wide-open spaces. Fewer people per unpolluted square mile than any state in the union except Alaska. Air so free of debris that everything—the finger ranges of the Rockies on both sides of Laramie, the sandstone university buildings, the deer and the antelope playing—appears in peculiarly sharp focus, like the C. M. Russell prints on the walls of the Holiday Inn. No slums allowed in Wyoming. No snobs, either. A man exercises his ambition to wear his cowboy hat anywhere, cocked over his forehead. And his scruffy pointed boots. And his engraved belt buckle the size of a hubcap tethered just below his proud, round, he-man belly. Guys like Kevin McClain say you come to appreciate these things and before you know it you're not even going home for Christmas, much less summer vacation.
Next, consider the slightly sensational Wyoming football fan. To say he "loves the Cowboys," a description that often follows his professional and familial statistics ("This here's Billy Jones. He runs the bank and has four kids, and loves the Cowboys"), is to put it mildly. He travels the breadth of the state—8, 10, 14 hours—to make a game. He will engage special game-day trains on the Union Pacific line, like the regular one out of Sweetwater County that originates in Rock Springs and moves through Rawlins and Creston Junction on its way to Laramie. Some of the fans are so filled with spirit by the time the train reaches its destination that they are unable to get off. "There are those," says one Rock Springs regular, "who haven't seen a game in seven years."
One might interpret this as proof that it has been easier to love the Cowboys than watch them in recent seasons. One might further assume that a team that has now won five out of six games and leads the race to the Fiesta Bowl should certainly draw more than the 23,649 who saw the New Mexico game, which featured the WAC co-leaders. But that would beg the fact that in all of Wyoming's 97,914 square miles there are only 350,000 people. Which means that by season's end the total attendance in Laramie will represent almost a third of the total population, a per capita support that, were such records kept, would surely be hard to beat.
Moreover, Wyoming fans are hardly what you would call fair-weather friends. The Cowboy Joes, a statewide support group, started a fund-raising drive last year—when the team was 2-9—that has enriched the athletic program by a remarkable $250,000. No team in the WAC derives so much from so few. The school itself is the smallest in the league. And so is its stadium, although there are those who now believe that Akers is only a legislative session away from the $24 million appropriation he has been pumping for in order to dome over Memorial Stadium and, thereby, to allow the Cowboys to play home games in November. Because southern schools in the WAC are squeamish about such things as chill factors and snow accumulation, Wyoming always has to play its last four or five games on the road. The disadvantages are obvious.
Wyoming's success in earlier years was paid for with the muscle of a rather colorful group of emigrees, for some of whom the term "tramp athlete" would be high praise and on whose heads the Laramie police force was sure to raise lumps a few times a year. Bob Devaney's coaching stint (1957-61) began to change that, and Lloyd Eaton raised the standards even higher and took the team to its only major bowl game (the Sugar Bowl in 1968). Eaton was recognized for his strong principles and iron discipline, neither of which saved him when, before the game with Brigham Young in October of 1969, 14 black players on the team decided to protest the racial policies of the Mormon Church. Eaton said no protest. The players insisted. Eaton kicked them off the team.
The impasse, in retrospect, had predictable consequences: the "Black 14" as they came to be known (and are still referred to in Wyoming) were not reinstated. Eaton's decimated team, after three straight WAC championships, lost its last four games that year, and then plummeted to 1-9 in 1970. Eaton resigned. The Mormon Church remained unreformed. Said a Latter-day Saint at the time, "We are not a Greyhound bus or a Woolworth five-and-dime."
It is accurate but not entirely appropriate to point out that the Cowboys, seven years later, once again have black players. And that some of them are stars. And that this is why Wyoming is winning. The syllogism breaks down when it is recalled that the coaching staffs after Eaton recruited blacks, too. The team had a high of 23 black players two seasons ago. But black or white, Wyoming was no longer getting quality players.
Furthermore, coaches were reluctant to coach. Team discipline went to pot. "Two-Fifty Night" at the Buckhorn, a Laramie hangout where a fellow could quaff all the beer he wanted on a Wednesday for $2.50, drew a swarm of football players. "Before Coach Akers and his staff took over, we were the Buckhorn's best customers," says McClain. "I'd see the seniors going and I'd say, 'What the heck, I'm not playing, I'll go, too.' You'd have a hard time finding a player at the Buckhorn during the season now."
You would have a hard time finding a Wyoming player doing anything out of line these days. Akers trained under Darrell Royal. Though a boyishly handsome, slightly built man of 37, with eyes so perfectly round and blue that he appears perpetually surprised, Akers effected a remarkable return to discipline. McClain says even the off-season training routine was unsurpassed in its effectiveness—"I came back weighing 230 pounds, and worked down to 180. It was murder."
Akers also renewed the emphasis on quality recruiting. Twenty-five of the 30 players he recruited last year had grade averages of 3.0 or better. But he did not subscribe entirely to what Eaton used to call the snow-belt approach—following an imaginary line from coast to coast and only choosing players above the line who could be expected to acclimate to Wyoming's drastic weather patterns. Akers' starting center, and now a team co-captain, Ray Davies, is from Tampa. Once he got used to Laramie, Davies wouldn't go home for vacations. He says Tampa is "too hot." Wyoming has always had to recruit outside (there are but 64 high schools in the state, and only 14 of those play football at the top level), but Akers set up new pipelines—to Birmingham to get Split End Ken Lett, to Nederland, Texas, to get Quarterback Don Clayton.
This is not to say that Wyoming no longer appreciates the kind of frontier ruggedness that drives the young men of Laramie to flaunt their toughness by wearing T shirts on subfreezing days, or to take friendly pokes at offending noses at the Cowboy Bar on a Friday night. Defensive Tackle Mike Webb had 75 stitches in a face-lifting he suffered from a brawler with a broken glass pitcher in Colorado. He was subsequently recruited by Wyoming and has started off and on for two years.
And then there is Linebacker Paul Nunu. A senior, Nunu was recruited by the previous Wyoming staff, but only in the figurative sense. Nunu asked to come to Wyoming, looking for "something different." Something different is what Nunu certainly is—a Samoan by way of Laie, Hawaii, who got into so many fights as a boy that a school official suggested he might be safer playing football. Nunu did not know what football was. When he saw it for the first time, he thought it was "crazy." But he learned to appreciate the finer points—"I'd rather whip the guy in front of me than get a press clipping any day. Especially when the guy's bigger."
It was one exquisitely aggressive play by Nunu that turned last Saturday's game around. Since Arizona State's recent spectacular descent, the contest matched the two best teams in the WAC, and for a half the highly charged New Mexico offense moved at will through a rather demure Cowboy defense. Except for a tendency to self-destruct—penalties and fumbles (one recovered by Nunu), stunted their drives—the Lobos would probably have had a safer halftime lead than 14-10. They had to punt only once in the first half.
Then on third down of its first possession of the third quarter, New Mexico tried an end-around play from its 22-yard line. The ball, the end and Nunu arrived almost simultaneously at the 15. With one massive stroke, Nunu stripped the ball clean from the end and smothered it at the New Mexico nine. Sophomore Quarterback Marc Cousins got the touchdown in three plays, putting Wyoming ahead for the first time at 17-14.
Inspired by the defense's new vigor Cousins came right back with a crisp 68-yard drive that included three runs of his own for 23 yards and a 42-yard pass play, but then lost the momentum by fumbling a fourth-down snap at the New Mexico goal. Wyoming's defense held and blocked the subsequent Lobo punt in the end zone for what proved the necessary touchdown. New Mexico fought down the field as the fourth quarter began, but again the Cowboy defense held and the Lobos had to settle for a 19-yard field goal. New Mexico renewed the pressure, scoring a touchdown with a little more than a minute to play, but Wyoming Linebackers Glen Hover and Grant Linck and Defensive End Dave Clements put the crunch on New Mexico Quarterback Noel Mazzone on a try for a two-point conversion, and that was the game. By then the two teams had run up all but the dribbles of the game's 851 total yards—506 by New Mexico—in as practical a demonstration of the WAC's reputation as a "big-play conference" as you would ever want to expose your nerves to.
Wyoming won because it is remarkably poised for such a young team. It did not lose a fumble, it did not throw an interception in all that frenzied play. And because, as Akers had said the day before the game, it is a team "you'd have to kill a half-inch at a time to beat."
Akers offers his wandering brigades of Cowboy fans a more open, perhaps even more sophisticated version of the wishbone than Royal uses at Texas. The Cowboys pass more than a typical wishbone team—13 times against New Mexico, but 18 to 20 times in most games—and make better use of split backfields. But if you were to try to pin the whole thing down—how after such poverty the Cowboys are suddenly the class of the WAC—you would probably come to the same conclusion as a growing number of coaches who see these dramatic turnabouts in college football as the simple arithmetical sum of three years in the jaws of the NCAA's 30-scholarship limit.
Almost overnight, Arizona State has become a WAC also-ran, and Arizona, the school that is pushing for them both to jump to the Pac 8, is not much more attractive as a candidate for exaltation. It is reasonable to say that both should now be dubious of such a move. Life among the Eskimos is tough enough.