Sept. 29, 2011
A member of Wyoming's 1987 Sweet 16 team, Mike Amundson didn't always see a lot of minutes on the floor, but will always be remembered as a fan favorite. WyomingAthletics.com recently touched base with Amundson to see where life has taken him and discuss his memories of a very special Cowboy basketball team.
A four-year letterwinner, Amundson played on a UW squad that played in an NIT championship game and two NCAA tournaments. The 1987 Cowboys advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, including a win over Reggie Miller and UCLA in the second round, and were inducted into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame earlier this month. Affectionately nicknamed "The Big Lug," Amundson mostly saw action when the game was decided, but learned to embrace his role on the team. A self-proclaimed member of the 20-20 club (20 points ahead with 20 seconds to go), Amundson used his dedication to excel in the classroom and stills finds himself there.
Give us a background of your career and life after you left Wyoming?
After finishing basketball and my BS in History and Journalism in 1988, I stayed in Laramie to attend graduate school, graduating again in 1990 with an MA in American Studies with a thesis that examined the history of the polo playing town of Big Horn, Wyo. I then attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, completing the PhD in 1996. Along the way, I published a book about photography in Wyoming called Wyoming Time and Again in 1991 and began university teaching at Idaho State University in 1994. I taught there for two years, did a year at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, and then came to Northern Arizona University in 1997. My areas of focus are the history of the American West, nuclear history, the history of photography, and sports history. I have published two other books including, Yellowcake Towns: Uranium Mining Communities in the American West which talks a good deal about Jeffrey City, Wyoming. Although I have been at home in Flagstaff since 1997, I have remained interested in Wyoming history. I have a new book coming out next spring called Passage to Wonderland that focuses on the history of the Cody Road to Yellowstone and am currently writing another book on rephotography in Wyoming.
I am starting my 15th year at NAU. As a history professor, I teach undergraduate and graduate courses on American history. My main areas of interest are the American West, the Southwest, the history of Sports, and the history of tourism.
Are you married?
My wife Lauren and I married in 2008. We don't have any kids. I adopted my dog Nellie in 2000 when she was almost 5 and she just passed away this summer at 15.5 years.
Lauren is a Flagstaff native and NAU graduate. We met playing softball and our first real date was playing one on one hoops in the park. She is the Librarian and Archivist at Lowell Observatory here in Flagstaff. As I was working on my two rephotography books on Wyoming in 2007 and 2008, Lauren accompanied me for two summers and we drove throughout Wyoming, logging about 10,000 miles. She has been to practically every town in the state with me, with the sole exception of Dubois!
You're from Loveland, Colo., how did you end up at Wyoming? How were you recruited?
I was recruited by Jim Brandenburg and his assistants Denny Huston and Dale Parker. I knew Wyoming, as my mom is from Kemmerer and I have relatives who live in Eden Valley and Worland (now Cody). As a top Colorado high school player, I was recruited by a lot of schools but knew that I wanted to stay close to home. Although prospective student athletes at that time could take up to six paid recruiting trips, I took only two, and drove myself to each one: Laramie and Boulder (University of Colorado). I really liked the small town feel of Laramie and it was close to home so my parents would were able to come and watch nearly every game. Plus UW was a very good basketball program. I signed an early letter of intent to Wyoming in the fall of 1982 before my senior year of high school basketball.
What are your fondest memories of your time at UW, on and off the court?
On the court: Hmmm. I was there so rarely that it's hard to remember. :) Probably the best moments being on those teams were the big sellout games in the AA where the place just went nuts. The NIT birth where Fennis Dembo climbed on top of the basketball standard is probably the best. Post game locker rooms were always interesting...I remember meeting Senator Alan Simpson there and another time introduced my dad to Governor Mike Sullivan, while I was getting dressed!
Off the court: Actually, another locker room memory. At the end of the 1987 season, I decided to start my project on rephotographing Wyoming and State Historic Preservation Officer Mark Junge, who also shot photographs for the Cheyenne papers, brought along a couple files of historic images to me from Cheyenne and we looked at them after the game. That was the start of my professional career.Other than that, I still have several very dear friends I met in Laramie.
You played on what was arguably the best Wyoming men's basketball team ever. What was that experience like and did you guys realize you were that special?
As someone who basically captained the scout team, the experience was both enormously frustrating because I knew I would hardly every play (and the guy ahead of me, Eric Leckner, played in the NBA), and enormously rewarding because it was a very special team. That said, it's hard to understand when you are 20, 21 that there are different roles on a team and one of them is to simply do your best, push the guys ahead of you, keep your mouth shut, and find other avenues for success. For me, that was academics.
If we didn't know that we were special, the UW fans made it very clear. They were really the special ones, driving from all over the state in all kinds of weather to watch their Pokes. It was amazing to me as I drove around the state later on my rephotography projects how many people remembered me from playing basketball 20 years earlier.
You played at the same time as some of UW's greatest individual players like Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner. What did you take from your time with those players? Do you still stay in contact with them?
I haven't stayed in contact with those guys, but did see many of them at the Hall of Fame Ceremony this month. The biggest things that I took from playing with those guys was a basic understanding of my strengths and weaknesses as a player and understanding the bigger concept of being a member of a team, including sacrificing some of your personal goals for the betterment of the team. It's an important lesson that I still use today.
Coach Brandenburg also always preached to us that we were part of a program and that that program included our team but also players that came before and after us. Cowboy basketball has always been a first rate program and I am proud to have been a very small part of it.
You were very popular among the fans, with them often chanting your name late in games. How did you embrace that role? How did you get the nickname "The Big Lug?"
I had some friends from McIntyre Hall who were on the baseball team and they gave me the nickname "The Big Lug" as a sort of joke. They used to chant things like "We want the Lug" at the end when we were way ahead. Honestly, it was a bit embarrassing although the edge came off when Coach Brandenburg asked me one day why they called me the "lunk." :) I know that my friends knew that I was more than just a basketball player and I think the fans did as well. So I embraced the name and the chants as recognition of my contribution to the team. I especially like it when my aunt Rozanne hung a poster up at senior night that said "Tensleep Loves the Lug."
Jim Brandenburg left after your junior year. Tell me about the emotions you had with that and what kind of relationship you have with him now?
Coach Brandenburg was a stern disciplinarian type of coach. His replacement, Benny Dees, was a laid back type of coach. Honestly, I think the team benefited from the change because it took some of the pressure off. Personally, it really didn't matter because I wasn't going to play much for either of them and had already set my sites on graduate school. I remember the 1988 media guide said something like "looks forward to graduate school" as part of my bio!
Coach Brandenburg now calls me "professor" when I infrequently see or talk with him. I have not stayed close to him. I do see and talk with several of my history and American Studies professors much more often. I guess that says something!
The 1986-87 team was recently inducted into UW's Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you?
Personally, I appreciate very much being included. I didn't play much but contributed in other ways. It's nice to be recognized for that. It was also great that UW recognized the whole program, including the weight training coach, the trainer, the student managers, including one Tom Burman! What really made the week fun though was that same week I was invited to give a lecture for the American Studies program. I have no doubt that there are very few guest lecturers inducted into the UW Sports Hall of Fame nor many Hall of Fame Athletes ever asked to give guest lectures. The combined feats probably better reflect my view of the game and my role as a student athlete!
Do you still follow Cowboy basketball and what do you think of Coach Shyatt? What did you tell the current team when you met with them?
I do still follow the Pokes but don't know much about Coach Shyatt. It's funny, but this past year I had former UW basketball player Eric Platt as a history student here at NAU after he transferred. I got to know him pretty well as a student and watched him play a lot his senior year. We talked a lot about college hoops and UW. We both knew former basketball secretary Mary Johnson. In fact, at senior night, Eric invited me to walk out on the court with him and his mother. It might have been the only time that happened where the favored professor was taller than the student athlete!
I did not say anything when we met with the current team but I would tell them to embrace the whole university experience while they are UW Cowboys. Basketball is a very big deal at UW but you never know what might interest you. Check out the library. Take a XC skiing class. Go to a concert.
Do you still find time to get on the court?
After playing intramural hoops for about 20years, I gave it up after my "good knee" was operated on last year. That said, my wife and I just put up a hoop out in the street and we like to play HORSE. We also like to play softball in the summer, bicycle, and cross country ski in our long, snowy Flagstaff winters (about 8ft/year!).
Where Are They Now Archives
July 12, 2011 - Brian Lee (Football)
July 22, 2011 - Laura Mengelkamp (Women's Golf)
Aug. 5, 2011 - Nichole Rider (Women's Basketball)
Aug. 25, 2011 - Lynn Stetson (Swimming & Diving)
Sept. 14, 2011 - Shauna Smith (Track & Field)