On Jan. 8, 1987, A couple of days after promising the Wyoming football team that he would hire the best coach available to replace Dennis Erickson, who had departed for Washington State, athletic director Paul Roach gave himself the job. He was 59 years old, and the last head coaching job on his resume was dated 1955-57 at Dickinson (S.D.) Central High. Roach had proposed two other candidates to Wyoming's Board of Trustees, but neither suited the board as well as their AD. "Oh my god," was the reaction of Roach's wife, Marjorie.
A few days later Roach was assembling a coaching staff, and when Gene Huey quit as offensive coordinator, Roach gave that assignment to...himself. In the annual spring intrasquad game, Roach watched the Cowboy offensive line surrender 19 sacks. That fall, Wyoming stumbled to a 1-2 start.
Roach called his 86-year-old mother, Dorothy. "You've lost twice as many as you've won," she said. "I told you you were crazy when you decided to become a football coach."
"Mom, you told me I was crazy when I was 14."
September 25, 1988
"Well," said Mrs. Roach, "I guess nothing's changed."
Now try this for madness. As a rookie coach—albeit the oldest in Division I-A this side of Penn State's Joe Paterno—Roach took Wyoming to a 10-3 record in '87 and its first Western Athletic Conference championship in 11 seasons. And the beat goes on this year. Roach has the Cowboys 3-0 and ranked in the Top 20 after a 38-6 branding of Louisiana Tech in Laramie last Saturday. Wyoming has already upset preseason WAC favorite BYU 24-14.
His players may call Roach "Gramps" behind his back, but they also see him as a mystic Whoopee-ti-yi-Yoda of the plains who could part the Snake River if he felt like it. "Before, we went into a game hoping to win," says quarterback Randy Welniak, who threw for 367 yards and a touchdown against Louisiana Tech. "Now we go in expecting to win."
Roach just calls himself lucky. "The burning desire to be a head coach passed me by 10 or 12 years ago," he says. "To coaches who are 35 or 38, the importance of the position, the image, the ego of it are very big. I couldn't care less about that at this point in my life. I can have more fun with it."
Roach is a lot like the Wyoming landscape—he's wide open. One of his first acts as AD in 1985 was to make sure that the doors to the athletic offices were never closed. He's rugged. During the season he gets to the office at 7:30 a.m. and leaves at 11:30 p.m. He's cool: "I've been around football guys as knowledgeable," says Joe Tiller, who took over from Roach as offensive coordinator this season, "but they're not as knowledgeable under the gun." And he's dry: When the Cowboys hoisted him onto their shoulders after the WAC clincher against UTEP last year, he casually warned them, "Just don't drop me. Something's liable to fall off."
He's also operating way above his profession's sea level. "Kids today are so much smarter, and I kind of enjoy that," Roach says. "A lot of these younger coaches have the idea that the kids are playing for them. But kids play for themselves and each other."
Roach, who was born in Wisconsin and graduated from Black Hills State College in North Dakota, has a romance with Wyoming that goes back to 1962, when he started a seven-year hitch as the Cowboys' backfield coach and offensive coordinator. He moved on to Wisconsin for three seasons, and from 1972 to '80 he was an assistant in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos, coaching the Bronco running backs in Super Bowl XII. Roach went into the sports agent business for five years, but Laramie lured him back in '85 as executive director of the Cowboy Joe booster club. Over the next 10 months. Roach put 18,000 miles on his Buick, coaxing $386,000 out of Poke fans as he crisscrossed the vast state. As AD, Roach has encouraged boosters to buy life insurance policies naming Cowboy Joe as the beneficiary. That tactic has the potential of reaping another $1 million.
So the university's trustees knew what they were getting when they unanimously supported AD Roach's hiring of coach Roach: loyalty. That trait can't be underestimated in Laramie, where finding a coach who will stick around is about as easy as finding rap music on the radio. Roach is the fourth Cowboy coach in this decade—Erickson skipped off after one season—and he knew that continuity was important to his troops, so he told them he would only modify Erickson's system instead of scrapping it. "They were probably thinking, Let's give the old guy a go," Roach says.
The first spring practice was a mess, with an almost entirely new coaching staff improvising on the run. But while Roach had been off the sideline for a few years, his mind hadn't strayed far from football. He had never stopped scribbling X's and O's on tablecloths and had even suggested a new play each week to Erickson. "We didn't even pay attention to them," says tight end coach Mark Tommerdahl. By the fall, though, Roach was fully prepared and his extraordinary recall of playbooks past and present would give the Cowboys an ability to adjust during the course of a game.
Wyoming was picked to finish in the middle of the WAC this season, just as it had been in '87. The offense is balanced if not very talented; the defense aggressive if not very big. "Nobody on this team takes a play off now," says defensive tackle Pat Rabold. "Before, it was no big deal if you didn't make the tackle—someone else would."
And the enthusiasm is back in Laramie. "It's always a lot of fun when you can do something positive for somebody," says Roach. "Or some place."