April 23, 2004
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
It was a risk that Don Julian knew he had to take.
While there were a few anxious moments, things couldn't have turned out better for him, for Joe Glenn or for the Wyoming football program. Julian is in his second season as the program's Director of Football Operations. A native of Kemmerer, he is as brown and gold as they come, a Cowboy through and through.
One of Wyoming high school football's greatest success stories during a nine-year head coaching stint at Riverton--he won four state championships and five league titles--Julian had gotten to a point following the 1999 season where he felt he wanted to give college coaching a try. He had gotten to know a number of collegiate coaches through the recuriting process as they would come through Riverton looking at his players--guys like the McGuffey brothers, and Tom Vincent--and thought it was time to pursue whatever opportunities might be out there.
"It was Cowboy assistant Sheahon Zenger (a member of Dana Dimel's staff) who convinced me I could coach on a collegiate level," Julian says. "We would visit while he was recruiting Ryan (McGuffey). He believed it was a step I should try to take.
"I absolutely loved my time at Riverton. The lovely people of that town bought into what we were doing, and we had 11 (two as an assistant) wonderful years there. But I thought it might be neat to make the jump. While I didn't want to leave the state, I felt if an opportunity was to come, it would probably be on the NAIA level. I hadn't been a graduate assistant, and I hadn't played college football. I knew those would be strikes against me.
"When a great opportunity comes your way, there are so many people who are responsible," he continues. "But it was the kids I coached in high school, who went to the next level, who really opened the door for me. I am grateful to them, because I got to know Joe a little bit at UNC because of Corte (McGuffey), and the staff here because of Ryan (McGuffey) and Tom (Vincent).
"My break came with Vic (Koenning). When he took the Wyoming job he went to every high school. He came to Riverton, and I told him I'd like to pursue a coaching position on the collegiate level. I'd come down to watch spring football, and I spent time with he and his staff. After his first year, his running backs coach left, and he interviewed me."
Julian did not get that job which turned out to be a good thing. At that very time Riverton was moving up to the largest classification in Wyoming, and he wanted to make sure he was there. He, his staff and his team felt they had something to prove. The timing wasn't right. The Wolverines finished 7-2 that year, their first in 5-A.
"The year after that, Rusty Burns left the program, and Vic moved Mick McCall from running backs to quarterbacks," Julian said. "After that first interview, Vic had promised that he would hire me for the next opening on his staff. He stood by his word. He gave me the call, while I was in the classroom, and offered me the job.
"It was February of 2001, and things were not going well. I knew that it was a tough time to join the staff. It was the most difficult decision that Jeannie (his wife) and I had ever made. She was on board with the move much more than me. On the one hand, Vic's future at Wyoming was very much in question. On the other hand my family and I were in love with Riverton. The people had been so good to us. We were proud of what we had built there, and the community was right there with us. They were so supportive. The school board actually offered me a sabbatical for a year, and if things didn't work out at Wyoming, I could come back. We were so flatered. But I couldn't do that to the coach who followed me, my assistants, nor the school. Besides, as Jeannie told me, 'what kind of a leap of faith would that have been. I'll never forget how the town reacted. Everyone was great about it. They were all so proud, it was like one of their own had been promoted."
He accepted the running backs position, and after his first season with the Cowboys, his worst fears were realized. Koenning and his staff were released. "I had been at Wyoming for eight months," Julian says. "What would we do next? I had no idea who would get hired, and no idea about my future. I began receiving calls from high schools all over Wyoming, but I wanted to stay at this level. First, I wanted to wait and see who would be hired here." The Julians had three children. They all said lots of prayers, and kept believing something good would happen.
"I felt better when Joe was hired," Julian said, "because we had a relationship. But I also knew with the kind of guy he was, and that most of his staff would come along with him. When he said in his press conference his staff was complete, it was a very difficult time.
"I knew I didn't want to leave the state, but in order to stay on the collegiate level I might have to. I applied at Black Hills (Spearfish, S.D.), and some other schools, and even considered finishing my master's. The Julians weren't sure what we were going to do.
"A day or two after Joe was hired, this football operations job was created. I talked to Joe about it, knowing he had lots of candidates. But Martin McGuffey (father of Corte and Ryan) called for me, and I think that helped. Joe hired me, and I owe a big thanks to Martin.
"It was a good-news-bad-news situation. It was not a coaching position, but it was a great opportunity with a great coaching staff, and we didn't have to uproot our children. We jumped at the chance."
The position does not afford Julian the opportunity to coach, which is difficult for a man dedicated to teaching and coaching young people. "It was very clear that with this job I couldn't coach. That was a hard one. I am dedicated to working with young people. I can still do that, but not necessarily with the x's and o's. I can help with things like academic needs, and the recruiting process. It's still all about relationships.
"I never second-guessed or regretted the move to Laramie, not for one minute. I've learned so much. I'm five feet away from Joe. I certainly have gotten a good dose of the administrative side, on the collegiate level. I have been in on a lot of meetings, some regarding challenges within the team. I'm seeing a different side.
"My position does allow for me to be at practice, as an observer. Joe watches the offense, and I'm his eyes for the defense. During practice, he'll ask me who looks like they're playing well, and who's struggling. Then he'll mention those things when we gather on the field after practice."
Julian is also an outstanding ambassador for the staff because of his relationships with the state's high school coaches. He understands the importance of recruiting the state, and feels he can help in the outreach area.
If you ask Joe Glenn about Julian, it's difficult to get him stopped. "What's the best thing I can say about a person? That's what Don is to us. First, he's Wyoming through and through. He's one of the most loyal people I've ever been around. He is a big part of our team culture, which is very big to me. He is such a heads-up guy who anticipates, and knows what needs to be done. He is rock solid, and a huge plus for our program. He's what we call in Wyoming, a 'good hand'."
When Julian began his coaching career back in 1990, he figured wrestling would be his coaching future because of his collegiate background. A letterman for the Cowboy wrestling team from 1985 through 1988, he was a Western Athletic Conference Scholar-Athlete as a senior. Following graduation, he taught and coached at the junior high level in Casper. His emphasis was on wrestling, but he wanted to be a football coach.
He received his break when he was hired as the wrestling coach and an assistant football coach at Riverton. "Our head coach, Tino Navarro, taught me so much about football, and coaching. He passed away in 1993, but there was one thing he told me that I always carried with me. Let the assistants know how you want it, then let them do their jobs. That meant a lot to me as a young coach. You have to surround yourself with good coaches, then let them go to work. It's so important to have communication, respect, commitment and great expectations. If you place great expectations on people, they will work hard to meet them, especially young people. I was blessed with a great coaching staff at Riverton, and I see the same thing with Joe. He has a terrific staff."
What Julian accomplished at Riverton may never be duplicated. When he was hired as head coach, he was the ninth in the past 18 years. When the Wolverines won their first title, it could not have been better. They met old rival Lander at Riverton. At the time a state title record 5,000 people attended the game. "There are so many neat things about football, but to see an entire team shut down, and go to a game is amazing. What a memory that is."
He believes there are many more to come.