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November 12, 2013 8:39 am

UW president right to urge university to aim higher in sports

Written by Tom Lawrence

Can a low-profile Division I college, especially one located in a state with a low population and based in a small city, compete with the major national powers in athletics?

That’s the question facing the University of Wyoming right now. New President Robert Sternberg is challenging his campus to dare to aim higher. Sternberg said there’s no reason the Cowboys can’t kick up their boot heels and play at the same level as other universities.

A report from a consulting firm hired to evaluate UW athletics says it can happen, but that a culture of maintaining the status quo must be vanquished. The problem is that the department has “simply accepted this as the reality,” it stated.

That drew a fiery response from UW Athletic Director Tom Burman, and has generated a lot of discussion on and off campus. Some are saying Sternberg is not being realistic.

How can UW, in out-of-the-way Laramie, compete and recruit with the big boys and girls, they ask? Our response is, it has happened elsewhere, and there’s no reason it can’t here, too.

In 1983, the University of Oregon Ducks hosted their arch-rival, the Oregon State Beavers, in the annual Civil War game. Both schools were in the midst of long strings of dismal seasons.

The game, played in a cold, driving rain, ended in a 0-0 tie. It has been dubbed “The Toilet Bowl.”

It seems college football success would never come to Oregon, and the Ducks were mired in mediocrity. They had not been the PAC-10’s representative to the Rose Bowl since 1958.

But head coach Rich Brooks, with an assist from an Oregon alum named Phil Knight, the chairman of Oregon-based Nike, dismissed the naysayers. Oregon could and would compete, they said, and by 1995 the Ducks were back in the Rose Bowl.

Now, the Oregon team, clad in its distinctive bright green and yellow uniforms, is a national power, playing in spotlight TV games, landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and bringing attention, students and cash to the university.

Kansas State was dubbed “Futility U” in a 1989 Sports Illustrated story. The school’s football program — the highest-profile part of the athletic department, and the source of most revenue for universities — was at a historic low point. It had not won in 27 games, going 0-26-1.

Coach Bill Snyder, like Brooks on the West Coast, would not accept that. He insisted that KSU could compete.

By 1998, Kansas State was 11-0 before finishing the season 11-2. It won the Big 12 title in 2003 and finished with an 11-4 record, marking the sixth time in seven years it had won 11 games, making it only the second university to accomplish that.

Oklahoma State, where UW President Sternberg was at before he came to Laramie, saw a remarkable rise to athletic prominence in the last decade. It was considerably aided by the deep pockets of booster and alum T. Boone Pickens.

Those are three examples of schools that decided they were not content to get pounded on the gridiron, to see other universities attract students and contributions, to exist in the shadows. They dared to dream big, and they realized their dreams.

UW faces several challenges, including persuading its own staff, students and alumni base that this can happen in Wyoming. No wealthy booster in the same league as Knight and Pickens is on the horizon.

But it also has some advantages. It is the state school, with Cowboy fans from one end of Wyoming to the other. They are proud to back a Division 1 program. The football program is not as moribund as the above examples, and it features a high-scoring attack that attracts star athletes.

The sheer beauty of Wyoming is also a major attraction. Kids used to ugly inner cities and drab farm communities are sure to be dazzled by the open skies and majestic peaks in the state.

We agree with Sternberg — there’s no reason to accept second-class status. Wyoming should go deep and see if it can step up in class.

1 Comment

  • Comment Link November 15, 2013 10:24 am posted by Shane Rutledge

    Maybe the football and basketball teams should see how the wrestling and swim team works. According to the UWYO athletic site, they are the two best teams on campus. Plus they have the least funding.

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