Kevin's Commentary: Opening Day

Aug. 31, 2011

Laramie, Wyo. - There's nothing like opening day.

Whether it's baseball, hunting season, Churchill Downs, or football, we look forward to opening a season, we're excited about it.

For players, coaches and all of us fans, Saturday is opening day. It's football season again, and none of us can wait. A Wyoming Cowboy football team will run onto Jonah Field Saturday night with enthusiasm that knows no bounds. One of the biggest challenges for each of those young men wearing the proud home colors will be to reduce the jitters and the excitement and do the job.

For the record, it will be the start of the Cowboys' 115th football campaign, and the 72nd time they have opened a brand new season at home. It has always been difficult to beat the Pokes at 7,220 feet. They have won nearly 80 percent of the time when they have been wearing the home colors.

I got to thinking about some of the opening games that have remained in the football section of my mind. There have been some great ones, there have been some not-so-great ones. Some have lived up to the expectations and anticipation of a new season, some have not.

When I was young, and the legendary Bob Devaney was Wyoming's head coach, the Pokes opened a number of seasons against the University of Montana on the road, sometimes in Billings. I'm certain those games were scheduled to afford Cowboy fans in the northern portion of this great state an opportunity to see their beloved team without having to drive six or seven hours. That tradition even carried through to the first couple of seasons of Lloyd Eaton's regime. The games were never really close. The Cowboys won all of them, and on five consecutive season openers never even allowed a point to the Griz.

Randy Welniak during Wyoming's 1988 night game against BYU.

Although not always, most Wyoming openers--like this season's against Weber State--have been scheduled against non-conference foes, and designed with the hope the team can get off to a successful start.

One opener I recall during my collegiate days, and the Eaton era, did not fit that mold, however. In 1967, Wyoming's schedule opener came against a conference opponent, and a tough one, and on the road. The Cowboys were to open the season against Arizona at Tucson. While Arizona wasn't always as good as its old rival Arizona State in football, this Wildcat squad was expected to battle for the league championship. That was going to make the game difficult enough.

Like this 2011 opener, that 1967 game would see the Cowboys go into battle with a quarterback who had never started at that position while wearing the brown and gold. So here's how it was. . .opening game, on the road, against a conference opponent, with unproven senior Paul Toscano under center. Other than that the opener looked easy.

On that fall evening of September 1, 1967, Toscano and a defense that would become the very best in the country stunned the Tucson crowd with a 34-17 victory over the Wildcats to open a year that would become one of the most memorable in all of the 115 years of Poke football. Toscano would go on to lead Wyoming to a 10-0 regular season and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. A safety throughout his career, he responded to the Eaton challenge and moved from the defense to offense and did the job. His career put him in the Wyoming Hall of Fame. Heck, the entire team was elected to that August list with the Class of 1997. And Toscano wasn't the only individual. There were so many names on that roster that became legends, and Hall of Famers. The captains, Jim Kiick and Mike Dirks to name a few. Larry Nels, Vic Washington, Jerry DePoyster, Gene Huey and of course the backfield coach and offensive coordinator Paul Roach all were key players in that successful season, and Hall of Famers too. I have no doubt, there will be more individuals from that team honored in the future.

Ironically, another unforgettable opener for me came the very next year. It was unforgettable for two reasons. It was at Lincoln, against Nebraska, and my Dad gave me the opportunity to go. The Cowboys lost that game on September 14 of 1968. While the Pokes lost it, 13-10, on what any Wyoming fan will always say was a bad call by the game officials, it was one of the hardest fought games I've ever seen. Often, we tend to focus on a questionable call when our team loses a close one. But that was the maddest I ever saw Lloyd Eaton following a game. Maybe there was some validity to the bad-call claim. Nonetheless it was a tough way to start a season. The Cowboys rebounded, however, to win seven of their last nine games, and finish 7-3. In each of those three losses, by the way, Wyoming's nationally-ranked defense did not give up more than 14 points, and that was to Arizona in the final game of the season, a 14-7 setback.

There are other openers that will stay with me. I won't forget the 1970 game against Air Force that opened that season. It was our first game in the newly-expanded War Memorial Stadium. The upper deck on the west side had just been completed along with a state-of-the-art press box. In fact the box was so new that windows had not been installed yet. Fortunately it was one of those glorious fall afternoons in Laramie so we didn't need the windows. Had there been blinds, we would have closed them though. It was an ugly game for the Pokes. Air Force produced a great team that season and it dominated Wyoming. The Falcons had a many great players that year but one in particular was sensational, receiver Ernie Jennings. He was too much for the Cowboys to handle, and so were the Falcons who won 41-17. It was a precursor to a doomed season for Wyoming. It was the season after the "Black 14", and the Pokes would finish 1-9.

I remember Fred Akers' first game at Wyoming in 1975. He came from Texas and inherited a program that needed to have its culture changed. The Cowboys had won just 16 games in the previous five seasons! He changed the uniforms--the helmets went to brown--and he changed the offense--the wishbone. We were all excited to see how all of that would play out in the opener. Idaho State was the opponent. The wishbone sputtered, and the Cowboys lost 16-3. What a downer. But even though Wyoming would finish 2-9, Fred did change the culture, and the Cowboys went on in his second season to win the league, and earn a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.

Bill Lewis' 0-0 tie with Air Force in his first game at Wyoming in 1977, and Al Kincaid's 39-18 loss at Baylor to open the 1985 season--the heat index in Waco was 115 degrees--were less than stellar opening-day memories. Paul Roach's opening win of his head-coaching career, a 27-13 win over Air Force in 1987 that validated his genius as a head coach, was a terrific opening-day memory.

I won't forget the 1997 opener with Dana Dimel at Ohio State or his 1999 opener at Tennessee--all of our eyes were opened to big-time football that day. Vic Koenning's very first game as Wyoming head coach at Auburn in 2000 was something, as was Joe Glenn's 2005 lid-lifter at Florida in 2005.

But my all-time Cowboy opening-game memory is a no-brainer. It was September 1, 1988, here in War Memorial Stadium. Not only did it come against old rival Brigham Young; not only did it feature Hall of Famer Randy Welniak in his very first start at quarterback, and a relentless defense, but it was the very first night game ever played in the stadium. It was the most thrilling game I've ever experienced. Not only did the Cowboys beat up the Cougars--Wyoming won 24-14 by limiting BYU to 213 yards of total offense while producing nine sacks and four interceptions!--but I've never seen War Memorial look more beautiful than that night. It was so special. An ESPN Thursday-night audience had to be impressed.

Welniak threw for two touchdowns and ran for another to lead the team. But like the '67 team there were so many names on that stat sheet that we will never forget. . .Dawson, Kilpatrick, Gilmore, Dussett, Fleming, Donahue, Schenbeck, Rabold, Edeen--who had five sacks in that game and an interception for a touchdown--Kapushion, Wehrer, Salisbury, Fittje, Slay, I could go on and on. It was surreal, primarily because the game was at night, but especially because the Pokes took apart a Cougar team not used to that happening. It was so much fun! That Poke team would go on to win its second consecutive conference championship, win 11 games, and earn a bowl berth. What a way to start a great season.

Those are a few of my opening-game memories, I'm sure you have your own. I'm as excited about opening another season as you are. Here's to the latest Cowboy edition making some memories of its own at 7 p.m. on Saturday night against Weber State.

Kevin's Commentary Archive:
July 12, 2011
August 12, 2011