Everyone looks forward to the home opener.
It doesn't matter what the sport, it's always exciting to return to the stadium for a new season. When I was a kid I couldn't wait to get back into War Memorial Stadium and take my first look at the Cowboys. During my youth when I was really getting into Wyoming football, the Pokes opened on the road because of a series with the University of Montana. For a stretch between the late 1950's (the Bob Devaney era) through the early 1960's (Lloyd Eaton), the Pokes and Grizzles opened their respective seasons playing a game at a Billings facility known as Daylis Stadium. I'm sure the idea was to give Wyoming fans in the northern part of the state an opportunity to see the team a little closer to home. All five games in that series resulted in a Cowboy shutout win.
Remarkably, it wasn't until the 1970's that the Cowboys opened the home season in the earlier part of September. These days, we are used to opening War Memorial Stadium either in late August or the first week of September. For a number of seasons, the Pokes have opened on the Labor Day weekend. Not the case through history. It was not uncommon for Wyoming to open its home season in late September.The first home opener I can vividly remember was the 1959 edition against the Air Force Academy. The Academy was in its infancy--the Falcons played their first varsity football season in 1956--and had experienced a great deal of early success. Ben Martin was the head coach when the Falcons came to Laramie that season, and AFA was coming off a Cotton Bowl appearance the previous year. The Cowboy roster included names like Walden, Smolinski, Melosky, Kuczewski, Memmelaar, Hill, Hamilton, Bisacre and Behning. The Falcons had an offensive tackle by the name of Brock Strom, who was their first consensus All-American. It was a huge thrill for me to see Air Force for the first time. But it was a most disappointing outcome. The Falcons won the game 20-7. By the way, that home opener was not until September 26!
Ironically, I remember a couple of additional home openers with the Falcons that were inauspicious to say the least. The first came in 1970, and it was the season opener as well as home opener. Wyoming was opening the newly-remodeled War Memorial on September 19. It was memorable because the Falcons were very good--they would eventually play Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl that season--with great names like wide receiver Ernie Jennings and running back Curtis Martin. They romped over the Pokes, 41-17. I would just as soon forget that part. What I remember most is that the upper deck addition on the west side of the stadium was still being completed. I was a student assistant in Sports Information at that time, and there were some finishing touches that had to be added before completion. One of those finishing touches that remained was the press box. For one thing, the windows had not been installed yet. Fortunately that mid-September day was beautiful and windows were not needed for "soft" souls who worked in the box.
The other Air Force opener that was forgettable came in 1977, Bill Lewis' first game as Wyoming head coach. The Cowboys were coming off a remarkable championship season in 1976, having played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Fred Akers had left to become the head coach at Texas. Again it was the season opener as well as home opener. The two teams would battle to a 0-0 tie. Not exactly the way either program wanted to open its season. Everyone left the stadium that day never once being on the edge of their respective seats!
By the way, the Cowboys enter Saturday's home opener with a good Toledo team. UW has won nine home openers in a row. Of the previous 115 home openers, the Cowboys have posted a 78-34-3 record, a winning percentage of nearly 70 percent.
For me, the two most memorable home openers are easy to list, the 1966 game against Arizona State -the Pokes would go on to a 10-1 record and a victory in the Sun Bowl--and the 1988 edition against Brigham Young, the first night game in the history of War Memorial Stadium. That Cowboy team would finish that season 11-2 with a Holiday Bowl appearance.
In '66 Frank Kush brought a Sun Devil team into Laramie that had a ton of offensive firepower--the norm for ASU during that era--against a Cowboy team that would be nationally ranked defensively. While the Pokes roster had plenty of Hall of Fame names, Arizona State was heavily favored. What a match created by the football gods. . . ASU's speed and Wyoming's defense. The vaunted Cowboy defense won the day, limiting the Sun Devils' two speedy running backs Max Anderson and Travis Williams to 23 and 22 yards respectively. ASU rushed for a total of 61 yards. Paul Toscano (a safety at that time), Dick Speights (who returned an interception for a touchdown), Vic Washington, Ed Froehlich, Mike Dirks and Pedro Billingsley had great games for the Cowboy defense that day. Wyoming won the game 23-6, prompting Kush's famous chalk board scolding of his team, "guts will beat speed any day".
Maybe the all-timer and one of my favorite games ever, was the 1988 season and home opener against Brigham Young. It was magical to begin with because it was the first game ever under the lights. I'll never forget how terrific The War looked that night. It was a made-for-television Thursday night game. The Cougars, as usual, were expected to be an exceptional team. The Cowboys were coming off a 10-win season, and a Holiday Bowl appearance. It was another perfect-storm matchup.
Randy Welniak made his quarterbacking debut in that game throwing for two touchdowns and running for another. But like the ASU game a decade earlier, this game belonged to the defense. I don't ever recall seeing a Cowboy defender have as much impact on a game than defensive end Dave Edeen. The Cheyenne native produced five sacks in the game for a total of 40 yards in losses and intercepted a pass that set up a touchdown. It was a performance for the ages.
Not only did the Pokes limit BYU's high-octane passing game to just 168 yards, but they knocked out the Cougars' starting quarterback Sean Covey. Interestingly enough, he was replaced early in the game by Ty Detmer who would eventually win the Heisman Trophy. What a night it was as the Cowboys won 24-14. Wyoming would go undefeated in Western Athletic Conference play for the second year in a row under Head Coach Paul Roach.
What great memories.
Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. in the stadium, Wyoming will play its 116th home opener, and new memories will be made. All indications are that the Pokes' opponent for this one is of high-quality. Toledo is an excellent program from the Mid-American Conference, and has been for awhile now. I don't know why this is, but few like to give the MAC its due. It is a very solid league, and possibly the most under-appreciated football conference in the country. Perhaps it really doesn't matter who the opponent is on opening day. A good fan just has to be in the stands for the opener! We'll see you Saturday.