‘I COULD’VE LEFT IT BETTER’
EL PASO, Texas., -- Dana Dimel always wondered what happened to that field-goal post.
A sea of fans stormed the field during that unseasonably warm mid-November evening inside War Memorial Stadium, tearing down the yellow pipes and spilling out in unison onto Grand Avenue. The Dimel-led Cowboys had just torched 15th-ranked BYU to the tune of 31-17, giving Wyoming a 6-3 record with two winnable games remaining in the 1999 campaign.
That season, year three of his tenure, would finally be the year that Dimel took his squad to a bowl game.
Or so he thought.
Fifteen years after that memorable upset, Dimel found himself bellied up to the bar inside the Buckhorn in downtown Laramie. It was the first time he had been back to this town since leaving the Cowboys for greener pastures -- and plenty of green paper -- as the head football coach at the University of Houston after the ’99 season.
As he sipped on his beer, Dimel said he leaned back in his barstool and gazed skyward. There it was.
"It was right above me," Dimel grinned, boasting about that field-goal post, "That was the first time I saw it. It was cool to still see it up there. We went undefeated against BYU, so that's great."
Sitting behind a wooden desk in his office high atop the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, this April, Dimel, now entering his second season at the helm of the UTEP football program, can only smile when he recalls experiences he had during his brief stint at Wyoming.
READ MORE FROM CODY TUCKER:
Tucker: Wyoming's Marcus Harris deserves 2020 Hall of Fame nod
Utes' Ron McBride was 'tasked' with beating UW
Fennis Dembo: 'Wyoming was my fit'
Is third time a charm for UW legend Marcus Harris?
He misses the Rocky Mountains, the vast views of the Wyoming prairie and the fresh, crisp air that signaled the beginning of football season on the high plains. The place he now calls home has plenty of desert peaks and endless horizons, too.
The biggest difference can be summed up in the white script that spans across the mountainside outside of his window. It’s in Spanish. That’s because it’s beyond the dried-up Rio Grande River in Juarez, Mexico.
"Who would've ever thought," Dimel chuckled," I can see Mexico out of my office window now."
Dimel called his time in Laramie special. The players he recruited and the culture that was quickly established made winning come awfully "easy" for the rookie, who also happened to be the youngest head coach in Division-I football.
He will never forget a phrase someone once said to him: "The three most important people in Wyoming are the governor, the football coach and the basketball coach. And it wasn't always necessarily in that order.
"The people there are so passionate."
For a time, Dimel was the top dog of that trifecta.
He had big victories at UW, including the 1998 cannon-smoke filled victory over Border War rival Colorado State at their place, dispatching LaVell Edwards' Cougars and outlasting LaDainian Tomlinson and the Horned Frogs in Ft. Worth. He finished 23-13 overall in Laramie.
Dimel won 16 games in his first two seasons at UW, second to only Paul Roach’s 20. In 1998, he had the Pokes in the Top 25 at season’s end.
There were also the close calls. Dimel's Cowboys nearly took down No. 12 Georgia between the hedges, went toe-to-toe with his hometown Ohio State Buckeyes in the Horse Shoe and fell to Colorado, 20-19, in Boulder.
He had great players: Patrick Chukwurah, Al Rich, Jeff Boyle and Robbie Duncan, just to name a few.
But, unfortunately for Dimel, his time at UW was also marred by late-season collapses and missed opportunities. In his three seasons, with two games remaining and a bowl game on the line, his teams went a combined 1-5. None was more painful for Dimel than the way the 1998 season came crashing down.
"He backpedaled and fell down," Dimel said of former quarterback Jay Stoner, who tripped on a fourth-down drop-back with the MWC championship on the line at home against Air Force. "Oh, Jay ... That was a huge game. Gosh dang ..."
Wyoming fell to the visiting Falcons 10-3 that day. The conference title was locked up, but a bowl invite was still very much in the cards. Only a road game at lowly Tulsa was in the way.
"They had the Vegas Bowl dancers there and all the programs laid out in the locker room with the hats and t-shirts," Dimel recalled, shaking his head, still in disbelief nearly two decades after the 35-0 blanking. "We played a horrible game."
Dimel never got the Cowboys over the hump and into a bowl game. He says the politics of college football at the time aided in keeping UW out of postseason contention.
Behind the scenes, though, Dimel's agent was busy fielding calls. The first one came from the University of Iowa. Then there was the Oklahoma job. South Carolina had everything in place, only lacking a signature on the dotted line, which was set to take place at the airport in Kansas City. That’s before the Gamecock boosters pooled money to get their guy, Lou Holtz.
The coach with the trademark Oakley glasses was in high demand.
Though he didn't get UW to the promise land, or anything closely resembling it, he was seen nationally as a young, offensive-minded guru. A disciple of the Bill Snyder system. To say he was sought-after would be a gross understatement.
"I was really close to getting a high-level, Power-5 job," he said.
Not much has changed about Dimel's personality in his 20 years since leaving the sidelines in Laramie. He still features that bright smile, infectious laugh and is very much the guy you want to have a beer with. He is a straight-shooter. A realist. He is well aware of his reputation in Wyoming. After all, he said, fans aren't supposed to like the coach that left. He knows that. When asked why he made the decision to leave so many years ago, the answer comes quick and swift.
"There were a couple of variables," he said. "One, Houston was going to pay me $750,000 a year. I was making $195,000 at Laramie. So, that was a no-brainer. Secondly, I was going to have to make some moves with friends (in the coaching staff). They weren't grooving really well in the mix of what we were doing."
Dimel failed to name names, but admitted as a young coach, he didn't want to ruffle feathers. It was just easier to leave and use that as an excuse for having to let some people go on his staff. He knows how that sounds today but added he has learned a lot in his 30-plus years of coaching. Sometimes, you have to make the tough decisions, he said.
Dimel wasn't the first UW coach to leave for the bigger pay day and name across the front of the jersey. Bob Devaney landed the Nebraska job. Pat Dye went to Auburn. Fred Akers took over in Texas. Joe Tiller left for Purdue, and so on, and so on.
The money Dimel got from UH made him one of the Top-20 highest paid coaches in the country.
Houston just made another high-dollar commitment this January. And to another guy named Dana.
UH snagged Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia, a Big XII university, inking him to a five-year deal worth $20 million. Holgorsen is now the highest paid coach in the Group of Five – by far.
Despite the obvious raise Dimel was handed in Houston, along with the plethora of local, high-valued recruits outside his backdoor, leaving Wyoming wasn’t as easy of a decision as it sounds, he said.
“We had built something at UW,” he said. "I probably could've stayed longer.
“I was getting offers every year, big-time job offers. Houston wasn't as big of a job as the other ones that I had a chance to get. Tripling your salary at 35 years old when you don't have a lot of money, is tough to pass up. Big picture, it would've been better for me to stay. The financial part made it too hard to say no."
He has another regret, too.
"I could've left it better," he said of his departure from Laramie. "They gave me my first job, and I have nothing but unbelievable memories there. The one thing that helped me there is, anyone who really knew me knows how I respect and treat people. They know who I am as a person. You can be mad at me, but you know what kind of quality individual I am.”
"Sometimes when you try to explain, you make it worse."
When the UW basketball team played in El Paso this past December, longtime radio broadcasters, Dave Walsh and Kevin McKinney, went to breakfast with Dimel. UW athletic director, Tom Burman, stays in contact, too. Dimel said Burman even made a few calls, aiding in helping him land the UTEP position.
Those, he said, are the types of relationships he is referring to.
What made Dimel's exit so difficult to stomach for many fans was what happened to the UW program after his departure. Under his former defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning, the Cowboys went 5-29 over the next three seasons. Many of those losses were of the lopsided variety. Wyoming was no longer a force in the conference. There were no more close calls with national powers. Laramie turned into a basketball town.
Although Dimel was dealing with his own issues -- turning around a UH program that had just two winning seasons in its last nine seasons -- he paid attention to what was transpiring in Laramie. He claims he was scratching his head right along with the UW faithful.
"Oh, yeah. I kept an eye on it. They had a ton of guys back," Dimel said, referring to the layovers from the 1999 team to the 2000 squad. "That was the thought: are they bad recruits? You can't pay much attention to it. When a coach leaves and the team goes down, was it because you recruited poorly? Maybe I didn't recruit for Vic's style?"
Dimel refused to throw Koenning under the bus, boasting about his accolades as a bright defensive mind and an architect of the great defenses of the late 90's at UW.
Dimel said he doesn't know or care to speculate. However, he did defend his recruiting, adding that quite a few future NFL mainstays came out of that crop, including Malcom Floyd, Adam Goldberg, Aaron Elling and Chukwurah.
Upon Dimel's arrival to UTEP in the winter of 2018, the local newspaper dubbed the school's new head football coach the "resurrection man."
Miners' fans can only hope that moniker one day becomes a reality. Dimel hopes so, too. His resume certainly points to the possibility.
Once thought of as a wasteland in the college football landscape, Kansas State's coming-out party was nothing short of miraculous with a young Dimel helping run the offense in the early 90s under Snyder.
You might remember Dimel’s first career game as a play-caller – a 52-17 Wildcat win over Wyoming in the 1993 Copper Bowl.
Dimel helped lay the groundwork for a turnaround at Houston a decade later. Unfortunately for him, his predecessor, Art Briles, reaped the benefits, winning back-to-back conference titles in 2006 and 2007 with Dimel's fingerprints all over those rosters.
In 2008, Dimel coached the tight ends at the University of Arizona. The Wildcats won the Las Vegas Bowl. The universe was introduced to Rob Gronkowski.
Then, there's Dimel's tenure at UW. The "resurrection man" label doesn't fit.
Maybe "the maintainer" is a more fitting title?
Dimel took over a roster loaded with talent from the Tiller regime. The cupboard wasn't bare by any means. Dimel will be the first to admit that. He said he simply followed the Wyoming blueprint: land tough, hard-nosed players.
"I loved recruiting there," Dimel said of UW. "I loved recruiting and evaluating the kids who came there because they loved football. We had some tough-ass dudes who loved football."
One of those tough-ass dudes was Boyle.
He was a state champion wrestler in Kansas. Many figured he would go that route. Every powerhouse in the nation wanted a piece of the guy Dimel nicknamed “The Manimal.”
But he wanted to play football. Only Dimel and defensive line coach, Matt Wallerstedt, believed Boyle could be a Division-I tackle. He says he will always be indebted to them for that.
“He’s a good person,” Boyle said over the phone from his home in Kansas City. “He’s down to earth and cares about the players. I loved every minute when he was my coach.”
Adrian Hill was also on that 1998 defense with Boyle. He remembers Dimel being quiet, but commanding respect when he needed to.
“Dana had the bar raised high,” Hill said. “He stepped in when he felt the quality of our performance didn’t stand up to our potential. I had some of my fondest years with Dana and that unbelievable coaching staff and will never forget them.”
Speaking of that staff, Dimel, Boyle and Hill were all quick to bring up the quality and youth roaming the east sideline of War Memorial Stadium in those days.
Names like Mark Stoops, Vance Joseph, Clancy Barone, Ted Gilmore, Wallerstedt and Koenning were on those staffs. Stoops is now the head coach at Kentucky and Wallerstedt is with Dimel in El Paso. Barone is the offensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings, Gilmore is the wide receivers coach at the University of Wisconsin, Koenning is the defensive coordinator at Troy, and Joseph, the former head coach of the Denver Broncos, is now the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals.
Not too shabby, huh?
“They were hungry, young, and knew how to recruit,” Boyle said.
“The coaching staff he recruited to Wyoming played a major part in our successful years,” Hill added. “Even when (Dimel) coached from the (press) box, the coaching staff was ready to keep the level of performance where it needed to be.”
During Dimel's trip to Laramie back in 2014, he said he stayed low-key while in town. His wife, Julie, was meeting up with old friends. Dimel said it was a chance to go explore the place he once called home. He said he was amazed by the new football facilities and the state’s investment in Cowboy football. He laughed when describing the former locker rooms under the west stands and the indoor practices they would hold in the old half-acre gym.
The Cowboy football program now has all the bells and whistles. Current head coach, Craig Bohl, earns more than $1.4 million per season. Dimel calls it a “different job” now. One he said he definitely would’ve stayed at if the circumstances were the same back then.
However, Dimel did have one gripe about the program’s 20-plus year facelift.
"Should've left the field natural grass," he laughed. "I don't get that one."
Dimel, now 56, only wishes he could grow grass at the stadium that sits below him now.
The Sun Bowl, a 51,000-seat stadium situated inside a dusty mountain range, has not hosted many UTEP victories during its 56-year history. The Miners, who were a part of the WAC Conference along with UW for 30 seasons, have won one of their last 18 games, dating back to 2017. UTEP hasn't had a winning campaign since 2014, and only one 10-win season in its 81 years of playing football.
Why on earth would Dimel want this monumental task?
Simple, he says. He loves a good challenge. It certainly has nothing to do with money any longer. Dimel made $700,000 during his first season in El Paso.
"I really needed it in my life right now, to turn things around here right now," he said. "It was time for me to go on and take the next new challenge in my life.
"One of my traits is, I'm a positive guy," he continued. "It wasn't a mess here ... We're close."
Contact Cody Tucker at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Cody_7220sports