SB Nation

Steven Godfrey | November 14, 2013

Hope on the high plains

Welcome to Wyoming, where one of Division I football's smallest and most passionate fan bases is braving the weather and waiting for a winner

It's a 1976 Chinook. Bryan Stevens bought it from his parents, who bought it from his grandparents. There were countless camping trips in the Chinook, the interior of which still sports a Griswolds-in-Hell motif of wood paneling and green shag carpet.

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"If we lose I'm heading back to Cheyenne tonight, but if we win? I've got a spot right here."

Often the Chinook provides shelter by necessity and not choice. Stevens has been forced to spend the night in the RV because of the Southeastern Wyoming weather, a feature of life that's lauded and cursed by the region's native-born in equal measure. In my "back-East logic," I assumed you'd have to hail from far-flung places like Jackson (380 miles away) or Cody (360) in order to get stranded while traveling. Nope.

I'm told that if the weather's threatening -- and it often is -- those folks just stay home. The real danger, the most dangerous stretch of road in the entire state, is the old Lincoln Highway, now U.S. Interstate 80. It runs from the University of Wyoming just 60 miles east to Cheyenne, the state capital and its most populated city. Between the two towns is Sherman Summit. With an elevation of 8,640, it's higher than UW's War Memorial Stadium, which gasses visiting teams at a mere 7,220 and can easily trap motorists for the night (or worse).

"I was stuck in my car out there the day I graduated," Stevens tell me.

Like, in May?

"Yeah, late May, actually."

One night two basketball seasons ago, Stevens trekked I-80 to a home basketball game against BYU in minus-50-degree February weather. When he was a member of the marching band at UW, he had to keep his saxophone's mouthpiece in his mouth at all times, lest the reed freeze. During a home game against New Mexico, he claims a sousaphone player's lips become stuck to his mouthpiece, requiring paramedic help, just like "A Christmas Story."

"You ever seen it snow on the Fourth of July? I have, and it looks awesome," one of Stevens' friends says. "You step outside and the fireworks going on, and it looks like ash is falling over the world."

***

At game time, the press box P.A. announces not only the outside temperature, but also the wind speed (Saturday's 8:15 p.m. kickoff was considered by all involved to be an unseasonably balmy 36, with mere 7 MPH winds).

"A lot of the Texas guys come up here and can't cut it off the field."

"A lot of the Texas guys come up here and can't cut it off the field. And honestly, it's no surprise if you've never been to a place like this," Stevens says.

He's referring to college football recruits, the sole resource that energy-rich Wyoming will likely forever be scant on. It's the 10th-largest state in the nation by area, but 50th by population, giving it the smallest marketing opportunity of any FBS program. There is currently only one Wyoming native on scholarship for football, senior tight end Spencer Bruce. The sole Wyoming signee of the Cowboys' 2013 class, Casper linebacker Ryan Anaya, left the team earlier in the season. Anaya, a two-star according to most recruiting services, was considered the top prospect in the state last season. Anaya's former teammate at Natrona County is three-star tackle Taven Bryan, who has committed to play at Florida, a first for the Gators. Without Bryan, the Cowboys currently have only one commitment for 2014, two-star Austin Fort of Gillette, Wyoming.

At tailgates dotted around War Memorial before Saturday's game, the consensus was simple, albeit depressing: you have to win to attract good players, and you have to have good players to win. So this is life in Wyoming if you care about college football.

After Saturday's 48-10 loss to BCS bowl contender and Mountain West favorite Fresno State, the Pokes are 4-5 on the season. Head coach Dave Christensen is now 26-33 in five seasons. Christensen has built an explosive offense centered around quarterback Brett Smith, but fired defensive coordinator Chris Tormey after giving up over 50 points in losses to Bronze Boot rival Colorado State and San Jose State. Like so many programs in the periphery, Wyoming has benefited from the advent of the up-tempo spread's ability to even out size and talent disparities, but suffered its wrath on defense.

Fresh to town is new UW President Bob Sternberg, formerly the Provost at Oklahoma State. As reported by the Casper Star-Tribune last week, Sternberg commissioned a $35,000 review of the men's basketball and football programs from an outside consulting firm, the results of which broke on Monday.

the review claims that a culture of acceptable mediocrity persists.

In short, even though Sternberg insists no blame is to be laid on any one player or coach and that the move was a "systems approach" to large-scale issues, the review claims that a culture of acceptable mediocrity persists inside Wyoming's two largest revenue-generating sports. Just as he's making local headlines for shaking up UW's academic rosters, so too does Sternberg seem set on making changes in athletics.

"There were a lot of heads in the sand. People thought certain things were acceptable, and they were wrong," Sternberg tells me Sunday afternoon. "You can talk about the altitude and the cold and the distance from a particular airport, but the reality is that we're not where we want to be. It's not like this is the first year football hasn't been where we want it to be. It's a trend."

Christensen's time at Wyoming echoes that of his predecessor, Joe Glenn's: an above-.500 season with bowl chances one year, then three or four wins the next, then back up to respectability, then back below .500. It's a classic sign of depth issues, a symptom of recruiting struggles. Sternberg has no immediate answer, but that doesn't mean he's willing to accept the current lack of solutions.

"There's always excuses for a sports program not winning or academic program not succeeding. And it's not that the excuses aren't true; it's that they aren't sufficient," Sternberg said.

***

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"He shot a 30-.06 from across the street. Went through the outside window and through the mirror. The bartender was standing where I am, and her man was in the seat next to yours. Shooter was her ex, and it was her new man sitting here. Everybody else saw him pull and hit the deck, but as the story goes, she didn't move. She might've known it was just for show."

This is The Buckhorn, Laramie's dean of bars. It's been open since the Wild West days, when prurient consumer demand from the railroad labor meant that the upstairs of almost every downtown building was a brothel of some shape or form. But the particular bullet that established the saloon's legend was fired in 1971, far past the era of lawless gunfighting.

it's that air of defiance that gives Wyoming its identity.

There's a sense about the community that the university's athletic marketing efforts should stay the hell away from images like The Buckhorn, with its hanging nooses and a mummified two-headed calf sitting above the bar. But it's that air of defiance that gives Wyoming its identity. With identity comes pride, and with pride comes the inexplicable, American urge to define one's provincial self by the success of college athletics. And so it is for T.J., a Jackson native, a recent UW grad and a future fracking engineer.

"Good God, I hate Nebraska. I hate that bullshit. I hate the state of Nebraska, but I hate people from here who cheer for Nebraska. If you like Nebraska, go move there and cheer there. Lincoln is a shit town. I wanted to beat them so bad this year," he says of the Cowboys' season-opening 37-34 loss at NU.

T.J., his friends and their tailgate -- of ribs and cheap tall-boy beers huddled around a single Coleman gas light -- are reason for hope for schools like Wyoming. Unlike so many directional programs across the country that enjoy consistent on-field success but labor in the shadow of bigger, more popular and more historic programs, there's minimal competition in the Rockies. Sternberg insists that the support is there. UW is the state's only four-year university, with no local pro teams to compete for attention, other than those two hours away in Denver.

"I don't think you can ever get past the weather to get players here. And whatever they think of a place like Wyoming. They probably think it's all cowboy stuff all the time," T.J. says.

Cowboy stuff is inescapable this far into High Lonesome, but the youth culture is still thriving. Shoulder-to-shoulder, shots-and-pitchers scenes dot around Grand Street in the quaint downtown, just like on any other American campus. The Buckhorn hosts the fresh-off-the-ranch brush-stomper crowd -- pumping quarters to hear Los Lobos and Hank Williams, drinking ponies of Coors in the mid-afternoon, and looking like a billboard for Kodiak snuff -- but after 10 p.m. it's packed with kids in Patagonia jackets swaying to Skrillex and Rick Ross.

It becomes increasingly hard to argue with T.J. and his fellow UW graduates. Outsiders find themselves entranced by the abundance of space and sky, which makes anything feel possible. Plus I've never had to sleep in a car snowbound on I-80, let alone tried to talk a running back out of Houston into spending four years avoiding that fate.

"Look at Tennessee. Tennessee isn't as good as Alabama with talent, and they can win," a tailgater says.

"Tennessee is shit. We beat Tennessee," T.J. responds.

Wyoming did beat the Vols in 2008, 13-7, just three years after recording back-to-back regular season wins against and at Ole Miss. That makes the Cowboys 3-0 vs. the SEC in their last three games [edit: 3-1 in their last four, counting a 2005 loss at Florida], a stat most non-BCS conference members would kill to boast.

"Eh," T.J. says. "I don't know what that really does for us."

Wyoming fans, I learn, are equal parts pragmatic and proud, but sweet enough in both to be forgiven for overlooking the obvious. If being a Cowboy football fan is so irresistible for Wyomingites, then the T.J.'s of the state shouldn't be tailgating nearly alone in a dark parking lot.

"I mean, I'm still going to show up. I love this place."

***

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By virtue of Fresno State's undefeated record and BCS hopes, the 8:30 p.m. MT kickoff is an extraordinarily late one for Cowboy fans, but there's still a respectable crowd.

As the Bulldogs begin to steam towards a second-half blowout, Bulldogs receiver Isaiah Bruce chases an overthrown Derek Carr fade straight into Cowboy Joe, a Shetland pony who serves as the team's official mascot.

"He's okay. He's totally okay," one of his handlers tells me in the fourth quarter. "Right now, he's just pretty sleepy. This is way past his bedtime."

Cowboy Joe is a miniature Ralphie, a diminutive little cannonball, whom his handlers warn is like any other live mascot.

they're a case study for programs outside of the automatic-qualifying conferences.

"A Shetand's nature is to pull, to tug. So yeah, we've been drug across this field before."

The Cowboys jump to a 10-0 lead thanks to a blocked Fresno field goal and a 79-yard inside rush from running back Tedder Easton. At that moment, the advantage is apparent: the cold air and altitude make the cold football zip. Three of Carr's early passes pop right off their intended receivers, and as momentum builds, an announced crowd of 15,700 is loud enough to help cause three Fresno false starts. Carr and Bulldogs head coach Tim DeRuyter would both mention the elements as a reason for their sluggish start, but the deeper and more talented team is able to adjust quickly. Two long second-quarter drives give the Dogs a 14-10 lead, portending the brutal blowout to come.

If there's one last sin we can place on the BCS, it's the ennui it causes among mid-major football fan bases nationwide. Wyoming might be alone in having to market August ice storms to defensive backs from Southern California, but they're a case study for programs outside of the automatic-qualifying conferences.

"We beat Fresno tonight, that's it for the Mountain West," T.J. surmises. "Boise's out this year, it's only Fresno State. I'm a Wyoming fan, and I want us to win every game, but I cheer for the Mountain West too because I want us to matter. How good is it to go to the New Mexico Bowl? Who cares?"

Had the Cowboys slowed Carr and pulled the upset, it would've cost the athletic department money. As it stands, undefeated Fresno could still make a BCS bowl, and doing so would bring in around $11 million in rev for the conference. That money would be divided and distributed to each institution. Losing to Fresno could make Wyoming more money than Wyoming could make by going to its own bowl game (Mountain West bowls paid between $300,00 and $1.1 million last year), provided the now-No. 14 Bulldogs win their remaining three games and finish no lower than 16th in the BCS standings.

"Would we have been better served to lose the game? No, absolutely not. When you break down the payments from a BCS bowl, it only ends up at around a half-million each," Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman responds. "We would have been better served winning that game on ESPN2 and winning down the stretch."

Wyoming fans and administrators don't like to think of MWC and WAC success stories like Fresno and Boise State as blueprints.

"I can't say we'd model ourselves after either. We've had a tremendous amount of success, and we can raise some dollars here. We've added a $11.5 million indoor practice facility and recently finished a $22 million facelift of our stadium that added luxury seating. We can raise dollars here in spite of the situation, because when we do things well, and we're competitive, people here go crazy."

***

Walking outside the stadium, I ask about the horses. There were hitching posts when I was here to cover a game in 2004, before the stadium and its surrounding area were modernized. It's a tale around locals that you used to be able to ride a horse anywhere in Laramie if needed, even to a college football game.

"No, haven't had any horses for a while. They've been cracking down on DUIs these couple of years."

I paused to write that down.

"Wait, are you a reporter? No, wait. Those two things aren't related," the fan says laughing. "Well, maybe, but not really."

You have to want to love Wyoming. Those who do require no explanation for surviving there. To those who don't, no reason to do so will suffice. That's a romantic notion, albeit a horrific recruiting pitch to college football players.

"It's not for everyone," T.J. advises. "But I couldn't imagine going to Colorado State."

A passerby summarizes rival CSU's Fort Collins, which sits just south of the border and boasts a travel magazine's vista of outdoor community yoga, brick-lined brewpubs and mountain outfitters.

"I mean, hey, I like Fat Tire, and I own a bicycle, and maybe it's just the rivalry thing, but it's hard not to want to punch someone in the face in that town. But that's probably because I'm from Wyoming."

On Friday nights, the UW marching band goes from bar to bar in Laramie, arriving unannounced, crowding the already crowded rooms and playing the Cowboys' fight song at full volume, followed by "In Heaven There Is No Beer." At once, the call-to-arms breaks the disaffected facade of college students and the well-earned, steely reserve of the real-life cowboys:

It's an old German folk song that fits Laramie by way of its reminder that paradise doesn't promise the comforts of the current day, even if we're just talking about a keg. Back at The Buckhorn, a local named Sam, who blows glass as a side business and works in a restaurant, tries to explain Wyoming fandom.

"It's Southern, or maybe Midwestern, but it's inverted. In the South, you might think it would be rude if someone passed you on the street and didn't say, ‘Oh hello! Hey, how are you?,' whereas here, not speaking to you, not wasting your time is being polite. People here are incredibly friendly, but it is self-contained. They're extending you the highest level of courtesy they have by staying out of your shit, but that doesn't mean they don't care about each other. They do. And even though there's that idea that everyone that's here is because they were moving away from something somewhere else, there's a great passion here. So they want to be proud and win like anyone else."

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Jason Kirk | Title Photo: USA Today Images

About the Author

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Steven Godfrey is a senior reporter for SB Nation based in Nashville, Tennessee. A graduate of the University of Mississippi and a long suffering Atlanta sports fan, he can be reached on Twitter @38Godfrey.

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