Dec. 15, 2011
Laramie, Wyo. - It's the bowl season. It's an exciting time of year if your institution is involved, and there's a sense of failure if you're not. The Cowboys are in, and it's a wonderful feeling for everyone involved.
My first recollection of a Wyoming bowl game was the 1956 Sun Bowl following the 1955 season. The opponent was Texas Tech, and I remember the family sitting around our old Magnavox radio listening to Larry Birleffi bring us the game on KFBC. While I wasn't familiar with all of the Cowboys by name, I do remember my Dad really worrying because the Pokes were without their all-everything quarterback Joe Mastrogiovanni. He had injured his knee in the final game of the regular season against Houston and was not available for the bowl.
With performances by individuals like Larry Zowada--who stepped in at quarterback for Mastro-- Pete Kutches, Ova Stapleton and Vince Guinta on defense, the Cowboys came back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win that game, 21-14. We were so thrilled.
While I was a little too young to know who all of those Cowboys were--it wouldn't be long until I was old enough to know every Cowboy and his number--I was very well aware of one. Running back Jim Crawford was my hero. He was a junior that year and the bowl game was his "coming out party." The native of Greybull rushed for over 100 yards and was named the game's Most Valuable Player. By the time his Wyoming career was completed he would be considered one of the greatest Cowboys of all time.
For me, there were so many more Cowboy bowl memories to come.
A year after that bowl victory, the 1956 Cowboy team would turn out to be even better--it went undefeated--and was chosen again to play in the Sun Bowl. But the team voted not to go a second straight year to El Paso, hoping for a bigger bowl invitation. That bid never came and that great team stayed home for the holidays.
Two more memorable Sun Bowls ensued, December of 1958 and Christmas Eve of 1966. I have much clearer memories of those games. My hero in '58 was Len Kuczewski, a tough, hard-nosed Cowboy from the coal mines of Pennsylvania who pound-for-pound was as effective a defensive lineman as any Poke ever. In fact he was the MVP of the '58 Sun Bowl, as the Pokes smothered Hardin-Simmons, 14-6.
The `66 game was special for me because my Dad and I watched it together that Christmas Eve. The Pokes played exceptionally well while beating highly-favored Florida State, 28-21. A great Fritz Shurmur defense limited FSU to minus 21 yards rushing. So many great Cowboy names dotted that roster. Running back Jim Kiick was the game's MVP, and middle guard Jerry Durling was the Lineman of the Game. To Wyoming fans it was the best Christmas present Santa could bring.
The following season Wyoming produced one of its very best teams ever, and was rewarded with its biggest bowl in history, the 1968 Sugar Bowl. Wyoming was the only undefeated major college team in the nation that season. Yet there was extreme concern that this team would not be invited to a major bowl. The Sugar Bowl committee put all of that speculation to rest. At the time the Sugar Bowl was considered one of the "big four" New Year's Day bowls. It was huge for Wyoming to receive an invitation to a bowl with that prestige. From the outset, Sugar Bowl officials were thrilled to have Wyoming, and the Cowboys and their fans did not disappoint. It was a heck of a game. The Cowboys led the LSU Tigers 13-0 at halftime thanks to a tremendous defense, an efficient offense, and the toe of kicker Jerry DePoyster. I don't think I have ever been more thrilled or more proud of a Wyoming performance than I was at the end of that first half!
But the second half belonged to the Tigers, as they roared back for a 20-13 victory. But before it was over the Pokes gave it one last shot. I can still see quarterback Paul Toscano hitting tight end George Anderson downfield with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game.
Anderson could not outrun the LSU secondary and was tackled after a 54-yard run. For a moment it looked like he would go all the way and the Pokes would tie the game with a DePoyster extra point. Even after he was tackled, Toscano hit receiver Gene Huey who was tackled on the final play of the game at the LSU five yard line. That's how it ended. It was a devastating loss to all Wyoming fans especially after such a promising first half. Even with the loss, the Wyoming pride could not be measured.
The Pokes have earned eight more bowl bids--including this year's New Mexico Bowl-- since that epic Sugar Bowl appearance. I have many memories of each. There are the great ones like the defensive efforts in the '87 Holiday Bowl (20-19 loss to Iowa) and '90 Copper Bowl (17-15 loss to Cal) and the upsets in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl (24-21 win over UCLA) and the 2009 New Mexico Bowl (35-28 double overtime win over Fresno State). There are memories that weren't so great, such as the '76 Fiesta Bowl (41-7 loss to Oklahoma), the '88 Holiday Bowl (62-14 loss to Oklahoma State) and the '93 Copper Bowl (52-17 loss to Kansas State). While a bowl victory is the optimum to cap off the year, it doesn't always happen. What's important to me is the fact that a bowl bid is a reward for producing an outstanding season. That's what counts in the final analysis.
While each of those bowl teams has been outstanding in its own way, this 2011 outfit is extra special to me. With a very difficult schedule, a new offensive coordinator, a true freshman quarterback, and an offensive line that had struggled the previous season, it would have been difficult for even the most passionate of fans to predict a bowl game at the end of this season. But the o-coordinator was brilliant in his play calling and handling of young quarterback Brett Smith. Smith himself was obviously very special, and his offensive line came together to become an outstanding unit. The defense made big plays when it had to. But above all it was the leadership of 13 seniors who refused to give in time after time. That was the biggest key to this season. It is those seniors and their head coach who have resurrected a program that had not seen much success over the past decade.
These Cowboys will play Temple on Saturday. Here's to a great game. What a wonderful time to be a Wyoming fan!