By Mark S. McDonald, undocumented society-sports analyst
On Friday, the UTEP Miners — the nation’s least successful football team recently — starts preseason practices to represent the nation’s most underrated university. I, for one, back off from no one, and here’s why:
(1) UTEP Miners earn degrees and get jobs. Graduation rates rank among the highest of any university in the state. Start there. And mostly, the athletes stay off the police blotter.
(2) After a 1-23 record the past two seasons, this 2019 squad has been laboring in the darkness, retooling and rebuilding, with minimal attention. Jolly good, I say. When you’re limping, you don’t need center stage. You need private time to rehab.
An aggressive recruiting campaign, that now features more face time with high school coaches in Texas, has dotted this roster with intriguing prospects. At least these kids look the part of D-1 athletes. More on player eval once I get to see the players, up close.
Practices Friday and Saturday are to be held on campus, then the crew will bus two hours into the cool pines of New Mexico, where work resumes in earnest at Camp Ruidoso. Season opener is Aug. 31 with a home date versus Houston Baptist University.
(3) Wait ‘til you see these guys. Guard Bobby DeHaro’s shoulders are two axe-handles wide. And these Miners are trending toward longer and heftier, thanks in no small part to a new emphasis on nutrition. Nutrition should not be new, but it is. Miners who once survived on fast food are now taking balanced meals at a training table. More on this later.
If the backs and receivers are also faster, more explosive, you won’t have to search for optimism. Readily seen from Sun Bowl seats, rays of light will shine to the very depths of the Conference USA standings.
(4) First-time visitors to El Paso are stunned by the Franklin Mountains, the architecture, the commons area, the way crowd noise is trapped in the Sun Bowl. Newcomers go palms to foreheads.
“I had no idea.”
“Yeah, we get that a lot.”
I always wonder why visitors are so surprised. Bolstered by Fort Bliss, local agriculture (pecans, cotton, cattle), international trade with Mexico, and health care … Old and as it is new, historic El Paso is a vigorous city, with a warm and welcoming culture.
Did you know El Paso is virtually the same size of Boston?
* Rounded to the nearest thousand
(5) Then there’s the campus itself. UTEP, during the tenure of Diana Natalicio, has grown from 15,000 students to +/- 25,000. Enrollment was 8,500 when I matriculated, just before the discovery of fire.
Today, UTEP reflects this region like no other university. The student body is 80 percent Mexican-American, half of which come from low-income families. The university hums with brainy heartbeat, offering 170 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs. Research expenditures have reached $95 million a year.
(6) Off the field, UTEP has been awarded “Tier One” status as a research institution. Don’t ask me how this happens, I just know that I have always considered my alma mater a gem in the desert.
Head football coach Dana Dimel thinks Tier One will be more ammo to shoot at recruits, especially parents wondering about their child going to a school so close to another country.
I know from personal experience that at UTEP, a kid can receive all the training, all the support, everything he/she needs to go anywhere and do anything.
It took me a few years to realize all this, but I see opportunities at UTEP as deep as they are wide.
Plenty of space on this bandwagon. I’ll save a seat for you.
Unauthorized correspondent Mark McDonald will file regular reports from the Miners’ Camp Ruidoso. If you see him on the sidelines, and he looks thirsty, you know what to do. Check out his latest book, about the time college football and history collided, at BeyondTheShootout.com.