How did Wyoming’s Coaching Search Move So Fast, Why Sawvel?
LARAMIE -- "Oh S*it."
Those were the words scribbled on Tom Burman's calendar on Nov. 26. Craig Bohl asked to convene the day following Wyoming's 42-6 rout of Nevada in the season finale.
The school's athletic director had a good idea what that meeting would entail.
"Just based on how he was thinking and acting and the conversations we've had," Burman said, referring to Bohl announcing his retirement after 10 seasons as the head football coach in Laramie. "When you have a coach who's at this stage of their career, you always have to have your head on a swivel and be prepared for change. And that's what I get paid to do. So, I was prepared."
Ten days after that meeting, one in which Bohl said he told Burman he would "ride off into the sunset" after the Cowboys face Toledo in the Arizona Bowl, Jay Sawvel was introduced as the 33rd head coach in Wyoming football history.
How did this hire come about so quickly and why did Burman decide to promote the Cowboys' fourth-year defensive coordinator?
While there was no high-dollar search firms involved, Burman said that doesn't mean due diligence wasn't part of this process. All options, he said, in-house and out, were explored. He pondered other current head coaches around the country, reiterating he had a feeling Bohl was leaning toward retirement for "a while."
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So, what put Sawvel over the top?
"What it all came back down to was, we have a really good thing going here and we are really, really close," Burman said. "We just have to find a way to move the needle slightly higher and get back into that Mountain West Conference championship game.
"After thinking about it, visiting with coach Sawvel, and kind of working my way through this, it was clear to me that the fastest way to do that was right here internally, because we had the best coach we could hire with Jay. And, so, to me, it was a relatively easy decision, but one I spent weeks pondering over."
After being introduced to the local media last Wednesday inside the High Altitude Performance Center, Sawvel opened his speech saying he didn't see this coming two weeks ago. He also openly doubted this opportunity would've even been possible four years ago.
Sawvel came to Laramie in 2020 after being fired at Wake Forest just four weeks into the 2018 campaign. His defense allowed 566 yards of total offense -- 325 through the air, 241 on the ground -- in a lopsided 56-27 loss at Notre Dame. The Demon Deacons were ranked 106th in the nation in scoring defense at the time and 110th in yards allowed per play.
After Jake Dickert accepted the defensive coordinator position at Washington State following the 2019 season, Sawvel got the call. Since arriving at UW, the Cowboys have featured one of the top defenses in the conference, including finishing No. 49 overall in total defense last fall, allowing just 360.2 yards per outing.
A smile creased Sawvel's face. Then he turned to his left to ask Burman's permission if it was OK to divulge how this day eventually came about.
The 52-year-old said his antennas raised when Bohl said a Sunday staff meeting could last up to 30 minutes. That's not normal, he said, unless there's some sort of announcement.
"When he told us that, and told us, you know, the news that this would be his last game coming up, then it just turned into kind of the unknown," Sawvel said.
Burman reached out a couple days later and told Sawvel to devise a grand plan, sharing his vision of the future of this program.
The AD was sold.
"When I found out, you know, it is what it is, right? It's a dream come true," Sawvel added. "You know, it's that much more impactful when you get to follow someone that you have so much respect for, so much admiration for. And it's that much more impactful when you get to do it at a place that you know you already love and with a group of players that you already know you enjoy coaching.
"I mean, most of the time, when people take head coaching jobs, they walk into a team that they don't know, they walk into a place that they don't know if they'll like living in, the whole thing. I don't have that in any way, shape or form."
Sawvel has never been a head coach at any level. Did that concern Burman? Without a doubt. He said that fear was overcome when he sees the connection Sawvel has with his players, the relationships that have been formed. A vote of confidence from former Cowboys and current NFL players -- Andrew Wingard, Chad Muma and Logan Wilson -- didn't hurt, either.
Bohl announced his replacement that Wednesday, stating Sawvel is "going to be a better head coach than I am."
Sawvel has been tasked with hanging banners and hoisting trophies, something Bohl wasn't able to accomplish during his decade-long tenure here. He is also emphasizing graduation, just like his former boss.
There's something else, too.
"I want people, when they come into the stadium and get on their bus, get their food when they get out of here to be like, 'we don't want to see them guys again,'" Sawvel said. "I want that to be the pace, the way we play and the effort we play with. We do that. We do that already. I want it to continue and even build. That's what we want to try and do."
Jay Sawvel Bio per gowyo.com:
Jay Sawvel will begin his fourth season as Wyoming’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach in 2023. He joined the Wyoming coaching staff in February 2020 as defensive coordinator and safeties coach. Sawvel previously served as the defensive coordinator at the University of Minnesota and Wake Forest University. He will be entering his 29th season as a college coach in 2022. Over his career, he has been part of 20 teams who advanced to postseason play, including 13 bowl appearances and seven NCAA Playoff appearances.
Sawvel’s 2022 defense ranked No. 2 in the Mountain West and No. 21 in the nation in sacks, averaging 2.85 per game. His defense also ranked No. 2 in the MW and No. 33 in the FBS in defensive touchdowns scored, with two.
Sawvel’s defense featured three All-MW honorees as selected by coaches and media. Those three were: Easton Gibbs (LB), who earned First Team All-MW; and defensive end DeVonne Harris and cornerback Cam Stone, who both earned Honorable Mention honors. Phil Steele’s All-MW team included: Gibbs and Stone on his First Team; defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole on his Second Team; and Harris on Steele’s Fourth Team. Freshman defensive end Braden Siders was also named an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American by College Football News.
The Wyoming Cowboys entered the 2022 college football season as the fourth youngest team in the country. But given that, the Cowboys went on to record a 7-6 record, finish second in the Mountain West Conference Mountain Division and earn a spot in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl. Along the way the ‘22 Pokes defeated rivals Air Force, Colorado State, Hawai’i, Utah State and American Athletic Conference member Tulsa. Wyoming’s 7-6 record gave them their fifth winning season in the past seven seasons.
The Cowboy defense in 2021 was one of the top pass defenses in the nation. Wyoming allowed opponents only 189.8 passing yards per game to rank No. 1 in the Mountain West and No. 12 in the nation. The Cowboy defense was also No. 13 in the nation in defensive touchdowns scored, with three. Wyoming held opponents to 23.7 points per game in the 2021 season to rank No. 5 in the MW and No. 43 in the country out of 130 FBS programs. The Cowboys posted a 7-6 record and won their third consecutive bowl game, with a convincing 52-38 win over Kent State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Linebacker Chad Muma was one of six national finalists for the Butkus Award in 2021. Muma earned Second Team All-America honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation and Pro Football Focus and was a Third Team selection by Associated Press. He was selected as the Sixth Pick in the Third Round (70th overall) by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2022 NFL Draft. Sawvel also had six of his defenders earn All-Mountain West Conference honors in 2021. Muma was a First Team selection (MW Coaches/Media and Pro Football Focus), cornerback C.J. Coldon (Second Team MW Coaches/Media), nose tackle Cole Godbout (Second Team Pro Football Focus and Honorable Mention MW Coaches/Media), cornerback Azizi Hearn (Second Team Pro Football Focus), defensive end Garrett Crall (Honorable Mention MW Coaches/Media), linebacker Easton Gibbs (Honorable Mention Pro Football Focus).
In his first season guiding the Wyoming defense as defensive coordinator in 2020, the Cowboys were among the best in the country, ranking No. 16 in the nation in total defense, allowing opponents only 328.0 yards per game. UW’s defense also ranked No. 21 in rushing defense (125.3 yards per game), No. 24 in scoring defense (21.0 points per game) and No. 29 in pass defense (202.7 yards per game). Three of his Cowboy defenders earned All-Conference recognition in 2020. Junior linebacker Chad Muma earned First Team All-Mountain West honors from MW head coaches and media. Senior free safety Esaias Gandy earned Honorable Mention honors from the conference head coaches and media, and sophomore cornerback C.J. Coldon earned Fourth Team All-MW from Phil Steele.
Before coming to Wyoming, Sawvel served as the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest University in 2017 and ‘18. He was named the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest in January 2017 and helped the Deacons to the 2017 Belk Bowl. During his first season at the helm of the Wake Forest defense, the Deacons set school records for tackles for loss in a single season and finished the season ranked No. 7 nationally in tackles for loss.
As the cornerbacks coach in 2017, Sawvel coached Essang Bassey, who set a sophomore school record with 19 passes defended and earned Honorable Mention All-ACC honors.
Prior to coaching at Wake Forest, Sawvel served as the defensive coordinator at the University of Minnesota where he constructed a Top 25 ranked defense and helped the Gophers to their best record in 13 seasons in 2016. Minnesota posted a 9-4 record in 2016 and defeated Washington State, 17-12, in the Holiday Bowl. In the Holiday Bowl victory, Minnesota held Washington State’s explosive passing offense to just 264 yards, 86 yards below its average, and held the Cougars to their lowest point total of the season.
Sawvel spent six seasons as an assistant at Minnesota. He was the defensive backs and special teams coach from 2011 to 2015. After Jerry Kill’s retirement as the head coach at Minnesota, Tracy Claeys was elevated to head coach and Sawvel became the Gophers’ defensive coordinator.
Under Sawvel’s direction, the 2016 Golden Gopher defense was ranked in the Top 25 in a number of defensive categories including: rushing defense (14th), turnover margin (18th), scoring defense (21st), total defense (21st) and sacks (22nd). In addition, Minnesota ranked 27th nationally in team pass efficiency defense.
Sawvel has helped develop several players who went on to play in the NFL. In 2015, two of his players at Minnesota, Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, earned opportunities in the NFL. Murray was a fourth round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs while Boddy-Calhoun signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent. In 2014, both Murray and Boddy-Calhoun were named to the All-Big Ten Team following a season in which the Gophers were 18th in the nation in pass defense.
Brock Vereen, a 2014 First Team All-Big Ten selection and another one of Sawvel’s pupils, was drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.
For three seasons from 2014 through 2016, Sawvel had at least one of his secondary players selected in the NFL Draft. Sawvel was part of teams that advanced to four conference championships as a collegiate coach.
Prior to his time at Minnesota, he served as the defensive backs coach on Kill’s coaching staff at Northern Illinois for three seasons from 2008-10. As secondary coach at Northern Illinois, he mentored Jimmie Ward, a first round pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
Sawvel was a member of the Southern Illinois staff under Kill for seven seasons from 2001-07, working with the secondary and special teams.
His first full-time coaching position came at Ferris State for two seasons from 1999-2000, where he coached the defensive backs and special teams.
Sawvel was a three-year letterwinner and an All-Conference linebacker in 1993 at Division III power Mount Union. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1993 in sports management with minors in business administration, information systems and physical education. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky in 1994 and moved to Notre Dame as a graduate assistant coach for the 1996-98 seasons. Sawvel owns master’s degrees from both Eastern Kentucky and Notre Dame, where he completed his master’s in administration.
Sawvel has two daughters, Mackenzie and Miranda.
He recruits central Illinois and the St. Louis metropolitan area for the Cowboys.
2020- Wyoming, Defensive Coordinator/Safeties
2017-18 Wake Forest, Defensive Coordinator/Cornerbacks
2016 Minnesota, Defensive Coordinator/Secondary
2011-15 Minnesota, Secondary/Special Teams
2008-10 Northern Illinois, Secondary/Special Teams
2001-07 Southern Ilinois, Secondary/Special Teams
1999-00 Ferris State, Secondary/Special Teams
1996-98 Notre Dame, Graduate Assistant
1994-95 Eastern Kentucky, Graduate Assistant
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