Twisting Trail of Triumph — The Miners’ Home in the Hills Keeps Growing (August 2020)

By Mark S. McDonald Sr., editor, mower of lawns, teller of tales
 
It’s fair to say that with the 1966 men’s national basketball championship, Texas Western College exploded on the national conscience. Fair, yes, but perhaps not be entirely accurate. 
 
Almost unnoticed, the dusty little college for teachers and engineers between the Franklin Mountains and the Rio Grande had already awakened. The very next year after the Miners surprised Kentucky for the championship, the football team beat Ole Miss of the Southeastern Conference in the Sun Bowl. The fire was lit.
 
Today, UTEP’s flame as a Tier 1 Research university burns ever brighter, fed not so much by athletics but by regional demand for a quality education and fresh opportunity – plus affordable tuition. A school that opened in 1914 with 27 students has grown to a sprawling campus that, without the COVID virus, almost certainly would push 30,000.
 
To reach this plateau, UTEP had to overcome obstacles far beyond world wars and a Great Depression faced by all institutions of higher learning. Tumbleweed Tech has risen above three name changes, geography and travel distance from media centers in New York and Hollywood.

UTEP well serves a regional constituency but unless you’re bad lost or driving from Atlanta to L.A., who happens to drive through El Paso? The move from Texas Western to UTEP, from the marketing standpoint, could not have been timed any worse. In the media black hole of the Mountain Time Zone, how do you build a brand with multiple changes in school colors and multiple logos on the helmets?

To study the long view of UTEP growth, parallel to Miners athletics, it is useful to break it down like so:

  • 1914 — Texas School of Mines opens its doors, to 27 students. The Miners field sports teams the first few years, but have trouble with local YMCA and high school teams.
  • 1918 — Despite WWI and Spanish Flu, enrollment reaches 100.
  • 1939 — Even with Nazi Germany flexing its muscles, enrollment reaches 1,000. During games, a guy wearing an “M” letter sweater rides a mule named Joey. 
  • Mid-1940s — Servicemen on the GI Bill push enrollment to 2,000.
  •  1949 — New name: Texas Western College. 
  • Mid-1950s — In the now-defunct Border Conference, the Miners are uber-competitive vs. the likes of Arizona, A-State, New Mexico and Texas Tech. TWC lowers tuition for non-resident students.
  • Early 1960s — Adding 500-1,000 more students every year, “Teeny Weenie” is not quite as small as some would believe.
  • 1967 — Just when Miners athletics are bringing attention to Texas Western, this marketing edge is dulled by another name change … University of Texas at El Paso. Sew THAT on the back of your jersey. 
  • 1968 — A brilliant journalist and elite athlete from Midland matriculates, along with a record-high 10,169 of his closest friends. History becomes a blur.
  • 1972 — Said student-athlete graduates, leaves the El Paso Times sports staff for the Abilene paper (later Dallas and San Antonio). Overjoyed, UTEP coaching staff, journalism teachers and newsroom staffers combine for a ticker-tape parade on Mesa Street. 
  • Mid-1970s — Enrollment steadily climbs, to nearly 15,000 by 1980.
  • 1988 — UTEP football under Coach Bob Stull goes 10-3. Dr. Diana Natalicio is named UTEP prez. The four previous years, enrollment had gone down. {Why? Anybody?}  
  • 2000-today — Just as the burgeoning population of El Paso itself rivals that of Boston, UTEP grows, too. After a minor slump in 1998, student enrollment grows every year. 

UTEP’s PJ Vierra, PhD, assistant director, Institutional Advancement Lecturer, has identified four historic bumps in enrollment, defined as increases of 30 percent or more over a 1-3 year period: 

  1. 1917-1920, +56%, College of the City of El Paso 
  2. 1926-1928, +116%, closing of El Paso Junior College, rapid expansion of curriculum beyond mining
  3. 1946-1947, +131%, GI Bill
  4. 1954-1955, +30%, non-resident tuition decrease

After the 1966 basketball championship, enrollment rose by 9 percent, Vierra notes: “However, the annual average enrollment increase for the decade was 11 percent, so we actually saw a decline.” 
 
Blame it on the Vietnam War and/or racial unrest nationwide? We Miners Forever would like to think that enrollment growth and successful sports teams go hand-in-hand. Now we are not so sure. 
 
{UTEP volunteer archivist William Quinn contributed to this report}

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