Jay Sawvel’s Marching Orders at Wyoming: ‘Win a Championship’
LARAMIE -- The "Dr. of Defense" is now the CEO of the Cowboy football program.
Craig Bohl gave Jay Sawvel the nickname.
The school's athletics director Tom Burman made his newest title official Wednesday, naming him the 33rd head coach in Wyoming history.
"This is a great day for me, personally," Sawvel said, standing behind the podium inside the High Altitude Performance Center on the north end of War Memorial Stadium. "This is a day that I probably wouldn't have guessed would have happened three, four years ago, that I would have had this chance. I'm indebted to so many people."
Serving as the defensive coordinator in Laramie since 2020, Sawvel will take the reins after the Cowboys face Toledo Dec. 30 in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl. Bohl, the longest-tenured head coach in UW history, announced his retirement on the same day after roaming the sidelines here over the last 10 seasons.
The team received this news at a 10 a.m. meeting inside this very same building. The mood went from one of shock and somber, according to a current player, to elated when Sawvel's promotion was revealed.
The moment wasn't recorded for public consumption. That's not how things are done around these parts. The rookie head coach called the moment special, before flashing a shy grin.
"I think it's pretty positive," he joked, referring to the reaction. "I mean, it seemed positive at the time ... The applause and all the stuff that we got today, I'm happy with. It was fun."
Sawvel is a straight shooter. If you aren't interested in the truth, don't ask. He also shows humility, often saying he's human and so are the players. Mistakes are imminent. The uncomfortable-looking black suit and tie he is sporting on this day, he said, will be quickly replaced by sweatpants when the cameras power down. That's just his style.
Like the man he is replacing, he's also quick to crack a joke, especially when it's aimed at himself.
"I've got a mom that I talked to last night on the phone and told her that I was going to be named the head coach at Wyoming," the Ohio native said. "The only thing she said to me, 'Well, that defense better play damn good at that bowl game.'
"... So, I don't need any other critics or anything else in the world. I've got one that I've grown up with for a long time."
The emotion became evident when he spoke about his mentors in this business, including Jerry Kill, Lou Holtz, Roy Kidd and his own college head coach at Division-III power Mount Union, Larry Kehres.
Sawvel referred to Bohl, though, as someone who has arguably made the biggest impact on his coaching life.
"I'm blessed to have him as one of the greatest mentors that I could ever have," he added.
His most impassioned acknowledgement, though, was reserved for a young woman sitting in the back of the auditorium and one who was nearly 900 miles away, his daughters Mackenzie and Miranda, respectively.
"My final two thank yous go to, really the two people that are the reason I'm here," Sawvel said, voice beginning to crack. "... When I took this job a couple years ago, you know, I told them I was leaving. You know, as part of a divorced family, it happens. I told them, hey, I got a great job that I'm going to take. Are you guys going to be alright? And, you know, both of them, and in particular, I remember Mackenzie just telling me, she's like, 'Yeah, Dad, I'm good.'
"So, that meant the world."
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When the smiles, well wishes and warm and fuzzy memories of this day fade away -- and in this chosen field, that can happen in an instant -- the main question will linger until well into next fall: Can Sawvel lead a program on this grand stage, something he has never proven before at any level?
"Yeah," Burman said bluntly when asked if it concerned him that Sawvel has never been a head coach before. "... But you look at Jay's résumé and where he's been and the coaches he's been around and the job he's done and his relationships with players. He really connects well with kids today ... You know, you have to connect with kids today and one of the things that really appealed to me when we were talking was about how he cares so much about how his assistant coaches treat kids, how the people in this building treat student-athletes and coach Bohl is the same way."
During the middle of that quote, Burman dropped a telling anecdote.
Randy Welniak, a Cowboy quarterback in the late-80's who currently serves as the department's senior associate AD for revenue and external relations, traveled to Jacksonville last week to take in the Jaguars-Bengals game. There, three former UW and current NFL players -- Andrew Wingard, Chad Muma and Logan Wilson -- would express to him shock in the fact Bohl was stepping away and elation in the new hire.
"They were like, 'Coach Sawvel is going to be the head coach? Unbelievable. Thrilled. Great hire,'" Burman said.
That remains to be seen, but the successes of his defenses in Laramie are undeniable.
Over a career that spans nearly three decades, Sawvel has helped lead his teams to 14 bowl appearances. Those mentors he looks up to have racked up more than 1,200 victories. He's coached pros like Jimmie Ward, Eric Murray and Antoine Winfield Jr., among many others.
Burman tasked Bohl with making this program "Cowboy Tough." His marching orders for Sawvel are more straightforward.
"Win a championship," he said without hesitation. "Do it with the right kind of people and in the right way, but let's go win a championship."
Luckily for Wyoming's long-time AD, that was already at the top of Sawvel's to-do list.
"There's two goals: you're going to get your degree and we're going to win a Mountain West championship," he said. "And if it doesn't work toward those two goals, we're not doing it. That's the goal. That's the bottom line to it."
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Gallery Credit: DJ Johnson photos