UTEP Miners in the NFL — The coaching tie that binds

kliff kingsbury
Arizona Coach Kliff Kingsbury extends his link to UTEP football

 UTEP fans hardly raised an eyebrow recently when Texas Tech boxed up Kliff Kingsbury and shipped the former Red Raider quarterback out of Lubbock. No return postage required.

So, again, we see universities have a way of eating their own young. We also see why most coaches strive to get along, at least to make nice in public handshakes at midfield. This is more than hollow P.R., it’s sound business practice.

In the matter of Kingsbury, artfully failing upwards after a 40-45 record at Tech, landed a head coaching position, not in high school or even college. Instead, he is the new boss of the NFL Arizona Cardinals.

And we Miners fans should care, why, you ask? Follow:

(*) In 2014, Kingsbury and his QB Davis Webb were responsible for one of the most painful defeats in recent UTEP memory. The Miners had an upset in their grasp – until Webb dropped a rainbow in the Miners’ end zone for the go-ahead TD, with about five minutes left. When UTEP’s own late rally fell short, Kingsbury and his relieved Red Raiders sprinted onto the field to celebrate a 30-26 dagger in my orange heart. More than 35,000 and I witnessed that one first-hand, an attendance figure we have rarely, if ever, sniffed since.

(*) More recently, Kingsbury just hired two men who figured prominently in the current state of UTEP football – Sean Kugler and Brian Natkin.

sean kugler
Former UTEP Head Coach Sean Kugler

Kugler was UTEP’s head coach until midway through the 2017 season when he disappeared after losing to New Mexico State. Mike Price took over as an interim coach leaving me with multiple questions: Did Kugler – a UTEP alum and a starter on the Miners’ 1988 bowl team under Bob Stull – quit. Or did his old coach-turned-athletic director fire him? And whose coaching record gets officially tagged with the remaining losses in a 0-12 campaign?

I know what you think of Kugler and the steaming turd he left in El Paso. But by all accounts, pro coaches hold him in high regard. Kugler’s strong point is “identifying and developing offensive linemen,” writes the Arizona Republic.

The Cardinals’ beat man points out Kugler “has a history of successfully shuffling linemen to different positions when injuries strike. The Broncos lost their starting center and guards at mid-season last year, but still managed to beat the Chargers, Steelers and Bengals in consecutive weeks.”

Again, I liked Kugler. He brought UTEP a two-back, tough-guy offense with a true tight end. During his tenure, my alma mater vaulted to the top among the state’s major universities for graduating its student-athletes. He is one of us — the few, the proud, the brave. I wish he could have been more successful

Then again, I can also see that when he was recruited to West Texas from upstate New York, he brought some Yankee with him. At 52, Kugler will be more comfortable dealing with grown men than pimple-faced recruits, high school coaches and downtown fundraisers.

Natkin is equally noteworthy. Recruited out of San Antonio Churchill by Charlie Bailey, Brian developed under Gary Nord to become all first-team all-America selection.

brian-natkin-combo
UTEP all-American Brian Natkin, now with the NFL Cardinals

With Rocky Perez at QB, Natkin in 2000 led the nation with 64 catches good for nearly 800 yards. The Perez-Natkin combo led the Miners to an 8-4 finish during a season in which they took the Western Athletic Conference race down to a crucial showdown at TCU. That was the day LaDainian Tomlinson hung more than 300 yards rushing on the UTEP defense and, during a 47-14 loss, introduced me to the “jump-cut.”

From an end zone seat at Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, I watched “L.T.” as teammates call him, dart into a hole, then hop six feet sideways to avoid a tackler – while somehow maintaining forward momentum. Worked out okay for him in the NFL, too.

Natkin had his time on Sundays, too, playing three season for the NFL Titans. Since, he has built a 13-year coaching career that includes six seasons at UTEP, variously serving as O-line coach and coordinator of special teams and recruiting.

When Kugler left UTEP, Natkin stayed through the ’17 debacle as offensive coordinator, though Stull looked past him to choose Mike Price to finish out the season as a stop-gap measure. Then, get this: Brian, now 40, ended up at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas where he worked with the O-line. Not for long.

Natkin goes into the 2019 NFL season as Kugler’s assistant in the O-line. So clearly, Natkin did what few UTEP fans were able to do – he maintained contact with the former Miners head coach.

Wise move, Brian, wise move. Coaching is a jungle out there. — By Mark S. McDonald, Undocumented College Football Railbird

 

 

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