THROWBACK THURSDAY: Rocky Toppled
BILLINGS, Mont., -- The first thing that comes to Chris Stutzriem’s mind when discussing that game is what a coach told him as he was walking out of the tunnel.
“There’s only 100,000 people out there,” he recalls him saying. “Don’t f--- it up.”
That was Neyland Stadium, home of the SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers. And it was only Stutzriem’s second start under center for the Cowboys.
Not exactly a small task for the freshman. Or anyone, for that matter.
More than 11 years after that game on Rocky Top, Stutzriem is sitting at a long wooden table inside office No. 1 at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center. A parade of young men and their parents have turned the room into a revolving door. Stutzriem is putting the finishing touches on his 2019 recruiting class.
In December of 2018, he was named the 18th head football coach in Rocky Mountain College history.
To make matters more hectic on this day, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and friends and family are already en route to the Stutzriem home. A blizzard is kicking up outside, too. The digital clock outside reads “minus-5.”
But, he laughed, there's always time to talk about that game. In fact, his former coach at Wyoming, Joe Glenn, still buzzes him with an out-of-the-blue text message now and again.
“13-7” is all it says.
That says it all.
“Joe believed in me,” Stutzriem said. “I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Wyoming pulled off nothing short of a miracle that 2008 afternoon in eastern Tennessee. Just look at the headlines from that November day:
“Tennessee records seventh loss for only second time in history”
“Wyoming stuns Fulmer, reeling Vols in Knoxville”
“Tennessee loses again, this time to lowly Wyoming.”
“’Pokes shock embattled Vols”
The list goes on.
Even Stutzriem didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment. He recalls making the traditional phone call home after the final whistle. It was on speaker phone. That way, he said, his dad doesn’t leave out any details from mom. Stutzriem said it was a normal conversation. Of course, they were excited, he exclaimed, but more so that their son was now 2-0 as a Division-I starter.
It wasn’t until the team saw the score and headline scroll across the bottom of the ESPN ticker that they realized what had just transpired.
It’s been more than a decade. Surely Stutzriem can tell the truth about the mood surrounding the team that week leading up to the Tennessee game. They had to be scared, right? They had to know they didn’t stand a chance, huh?
Wyoming limped in with a 3-6 record. They were a four-touchdown underdog.
Not to mention the Volunteers’ legendary head coach, Phil Fulmer, was informed the week before that he would not be retained at the end of the season. Great … that’s all Tennessee needs is extra motivation.
“We didn’t care,” Stutzriem claimed. “We thought, 'let’s go play the game.'”
Come on … seriously?
“Why play the game if you are already going to lose it in your mind,” he continued. “They still have to play the game just like we do. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind, or anyone else’s, that we couldn’t win that game.”
Sounds like coach speak. Stutzriem said it isn’t. Maybe he was naïve because he was a freshman, he laughed.
Something the public doesn’t know, he said, was that the Thursday practice before his first career start against San Diego State the week prior was nothing short of a train wreck.
“I didn’t complete one pass. Not one,” he laughed. “I was terrible. We even ran a hitch so I could complete a pass. It didn’t happen. I went to coach (Bob) Cole’s office and said, ‘hey, this won’t happen in the game.'
"I don’t know if it was nerves or I was just a terrible practice player.”
Stutzriem didn’t exactly flirt with a record-breaking day against the Aztecs, completing just 6 of 10 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown pass to Brandon Stewart. But, the Cowboys snapped a five-game losing skid and finally got in the win column in Mountain West play.
It also gave No. 18 some much-needed confidence. He would need it.
Eric Berry, Robert Ayers and the Vols’ vaunted Top-10 defense awaited. That alone didn’t bode well for the Pokes, who featured the lowest scoring offense in major college football.
Stutzriem can admit it now – he gawked at the girth and size of the Tennessee defense as he warmed up that day.
“Oh yeah, I was looking at them,” he laughed. “They were having a down year, but they had a great defense. I still see Berry on television playing for the Chiefs. I think, ‘I threw a touchdown pass on him.’”
Wyoming’s offense may not have been up to snuff, but the Pokes’ defense was right there in the same category with Tennessee.
And on this day, it wasn’t Ayers or Berry stealing the show, it was Ward Dobbs, who returned a Nick Stephens interception 24 yards for a touchdown. UW linebacker, Mike Neuhaus, also stepped in front of a Stephens pass and returned it 55 yards.
Wyoming’s defense allowed Tennessee only 15 first downs and 219 yards of total offense, 145 of which was through the air.
“Our defense played outstanding,” said Stutzriem, who finished the day a pedestrian 8 of 16 for 95 yards and a touchdown. “But then Ayers caught me, and I fumbled.”
That’s when, he said, the calming effect of Glenn came into play.
“He said, ‘welp, look at the scoreboard,'” he continued. “'We are winning. Our defense will stop them, and we will win the game.'”
Indeed, that’s just what the Cowboys did.
Before he took a final knee to kill the game clock, Stutzriem, who was named MWC Offensive Player of the Week, thought about all those hours of listening to Tennessee’s fight song, “Rocky Top,” that entire week of practice. He remembers thinking, “man, this place was just so loud a few seconds ago.
"Like, really loud.”
After the final snap, the Cowboys ran to the corner of the field to celebrate with a small contingent of brown-and-gold-clad fans in the cavernous, half-empty stadium.
Rocky Top solemnly played in the background as UW players jumped into the crowd and clapped along to the song of the day, “Cowboy Joe.”
"They have a legendary coach," Stutzriem told reporters after the game. "They are playing with a lot of emotions, but never count out the boys from Wyoming. We never give up."
The party was just getting started.
“The plane ride home was unreal,” Stutzriem said. “We got back to Laramie around 8 p.m. There were people outside, lining the streets. I don’t think we even went home to change before heading downtown to drink … um, I guess I shouldn’t say that.”
Stutzriem is a likable guy. He is quick to laugh and has jokes -- just like his former coach. He says he rarely talks about that November day in Knoxville. He doesn’t have to. His fellow coaches and friends are always quick to bring it up.
So did one of his players.
RMC freshman offensive lineman, Tanner Bloom, of Casper, told coach what a great day that was for Wyoming fans. He was a 10-year-old in the crowd at Neyland Stadium.
“Hearing that was pretty cool,” Stutzriem admitted.
He says he likes to keep things in perspective. As fun as that plane ride home was, the following week’s flight from Las Vegas was the polar opposite. The Cowboys fell to UNLV, 22-14. Stutzriem threw two picks. Glenn, the team figured, would now be fired at season’s end. A bowl was no longer in the cards. A blowout loss at home in the season finale against rival Colorado State served as a final punch to the gut.
That would prove to be Glenn’s last game on the sidelines in Laramie. It was also Stutzriem’s.
After a four-year absence from coaching, Glenn would go on to become the head man at the University of South Dakota. Stutzriem made his way to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he would become the starting quarterback of the Indiana State Sycamores. He finished his collegiate career at Morningside College, an NAIA school in Sioux City, Iowa.
Stutzriem said he tries to model his coaching style after Glenn. Not so much on the field as off.
“I’m still trying to learn the piano,” Stutzriem joked, referring to Glenn playing the fight song of each school he coached at. “He wasn’t fake. If I could be half the person or coach he is, I don’t care how many games I win.”
Glenn added Stutzriem to his staff at South Dakota. Glenn still answers the phone when the young head coach calls, he said.
When he is asked where he went to college, Stutzriem doesn’t hesitate – the University of Wyoming. If he has one regret, he says, he would’ve stayed in Laramie his entire career. He watched from Indiana as Austyn Carta-Samuels led the Pokes to a New Mexico Bowl championship the following season. He will be the first to admit that he didn’t fit in Dave Christensen’s offensive plans, but added that he could’ve lost a few pounds and worked on having quicker feet and a faster release.
What he missed most was the relationships he made.
“It’s the biggest mistake I ever made,” he said. “I feel like I quit on them.”
He says he has no ill-will toward the school. He loved the fans. The cool fall days inside War Memorial Stadium. The coaches. His friends.
“I still watch them. I’m still a fan,” Stutzriem said. “I blame myself more than anyone. I’m happy to see them succeed. I wish I would’ve stuck it out for the relationships I have and built.”
The Battlin’ Bears of Rocky Mountain College finished 8-4 in 2018. Stutzriem hopes to add to that win total this fall in Billings.
And he has only one request.
“Hopefully someone bet on us and won some good money,” he laughed, talking about the upset of Tennessee. “If so, make a donation to Rocky football.”
* This story was originally published June 26, 2019