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.