Where Texas Western Led, Others Followed — Miner’s New Book Chronicles UTEP’s Historic Stake in American Culture

Horizontal with book

By Mark S. McDonald Sr., Totally Self-Serving Miner Forever

Sixty years of living and football, plus two years of research and writing, just washed up on my doorstep today. A 5,213-pound package containing 1,500 copies of my baby. You may recognize it as my new release: Beyond The Big Shootout – 50 Years of Football’s Life Lessons, a historical account of the Arkansas – Texas game for football’s national title, and what happened afterwards. Answer: Plenty.

There was love, marriage, kids, car wrecks, cancer, busted businesses, all this amidst the Vietnam war, race riots, assassinations and the intersection of television with college sports. It’s a big, big story, told in 160,000 words, more than 100 photos, several cartoons by Bill DeOre, and captured in a large format. UTEP is part of the story, too.

Chapters on Julius Whitaker of the University of Texas and Jon Richardson of the University of Arkansas breaking the color line in 1970 would be incomplete without the back-stories of Texas Western’s earliest black athletes. Thanks to retired El Paso sportswriter Bill Knight and his institutional memory. And here’s a toast to the likes of Nolan Richardson, Charlie Brown, Fred Carr and Charlie West. You bold Miners, during the mid-1950s and early ’60s, led the way.

With support from coaches and staff at my alma mater, you nudged all-white athletic programs elsewhere toward racial integration. Good on you, fellas, and thanks, from all of us Miners forever. It could not have been easy, but it was your time and it was the right thing to do.

{McDonald is a UTEP grad and two-year letterman in football. To order his new book, visit <BeyondTheShootout.com>, or send $35 to: Dust Devil Publishing, 2206 Country Club, Midland, TX 79701. Allow three weeks for delivery.}

Vandy Still a Dandy — Hall of Fame UTEP Coach in Full Stride

By Mark S. McDonald, undocumented UTEP railbird

Wayne Vandenburg was on fire the other night, poking at a plate of enchiladas at a Permian Basin café, serving up 55 years of UTEP athletics for dessert.

“Vandies Dandies” were an enormous draw to home meets in the late 1960s.

Vandy came to Texas Western from the University of New Mexico to coach the track/field and cross-country teams. He was 24. From 1968-72, with the young firebrand leading the way, the Miners were spooky-good:

  • One national team title, a runner-up and numerous finishes among the top seven;
  •  57 NCAA all-Americans;
  •  2 world-record holders and an Olympic champ.

Now 77, going on 38, Vandy had started this busy day at his home near Dallas. Making his way west on the interstate, he stopped for meetings in Weatherford, Abilene and Odessa. Next morning, he was headed for Monahans, then driving back to Dallas. Between incoming phone calls from friends and his real estate investment business office in Chicago, the Miners Hall of Fame coach conducted a memory-walk … back to one of those UTEP/Southern Cal/Oregon triangular meets … world-class athletes in competition … the roar of the Kidd Field crowd bouncing off the mountains and rumbling against your chest.

Wayne is one of those rare guys who can go full blast into any project, at any time, and never once question his own choices. Most guys like that are insufferable. A two-legged jackass. Case in point: Baseball manager Billy Martin. And that new senator from New York appears to have the same toxic blend of arrogance and ignorance. Not Wayne Vandenburg.

Full of energy and optimism — to go with contacts far and wide — I always thought Wayne would have been the ideal athletics director, at a time when UTEP was growing. Who better to capitalize on the 1966 national basketball title and the ’67 bowl victory over an SEC team? Instead, fate went against my wishes, and against Wayne Vandenburg.

Wayne Vandenburg
UTEP Hall of Fame track coach Wayne Vandenburg — forever an optimist and a Miner forever — is always looking up.

Vandy in 1970 embraced the very UTEP black athletes he released. Several Miners planned to boycott, in support of protests against racial discrimination nationwide. Vandy sympathized with the message but not the means, and fired them all. Bam. There went UTEP’s chance for another track/field championship.

But a few years ago, the tracksters of yesteryear gathered for a reunion, former athletes coming back to El Paso from hither and yon. Hugs and laughter all around, with nary a word of angst to be heard.

In a two-way show of loyalty so rare today, Miners with retreating hairlines and advancing waistlines still love Wayne Vandenburg. Can you blame them? What’s not to love?

McDonald is a UTEP grad and two-year starter in football. His 350-page, fully-illustrated historical narrative, entitled Beyond The Big Shootout – 50 Years of Football’s Life Lessons, covers the aftermath of the epic Arkansas vs. Texas football Shootout of 1969. Cost is $29.95 + shipping. For convenience of credit card, visit BeyondTheShootout.com.}  

Winchester Shoots His Own Ammo

lance winchesterBy Mark S. McDonald, Undocumented UTEP Magpie

In the mid-1960s, former Texas Western Coach Bum Phillips moved from the border to Port Neches-Grove High, where son Wade was a promising sophomore linebacker. There is another, little-known sidebar to the Phillips connection in UTEP football history.

The Phillips’ 1963 PN-G team met Beaumont South Park for the district title. South Park trotted out a sophomore LB of its own. If you could ID scrappy Lance Winchester, who later played next to legendary Fred Carr on UTEP’s 1967 Sun Bowl champion, move to the head of the class. {Actually, if you can do that, I worry about you.}

Today, Lance Winchester practices litigation law in Austin, Texas.

Winchester’s off-beat intellect was beyond the grasp of UTEP coaches. When Lance would skip a mandatory study hall for more entertaining pursuits in town, he would create lame excuses in handwritten notes. The recipient, Coach Y.C. (Ready-Ready) McNeese was so moved, he would make Lance run extra Sun Bowl stadium steps. Started calling him “Shakespeare.”

Back then, the nickname puzzled Winchester’s teammates. Today, Lance — an honor grad from UTEP and the Michigan School of Law — still makes up his own dance steps while practicing litigation law in Austin.

Tough But True — Don Haskins Treated All His Players the Same — Like Crap

By Rex Miller, Texas Western & UTEP Historian

My associations with Hall of Fame basketball coach Don Haskins consisted mostly of watching his practice sessions. At Memorial Gym on campus where the Miners practiced, I once sat with (Western Athletic Conference basketball official) Moose Stubing.

Hall of Famer Don Haskins, meaner than an ex-wife, a Miner forever.

“There’s Stubing up there,” Haskins rumbled, pointing to the stands at the time-honored campus facility. “He’s the only one I know who combs his hair with a towel.”

Just then The Bear unleashed a tirade, yelling at his players that they were so messed up the looked like a “Chinese fire drill.”

(Editor’s note: It should be noted here that the better the player, the more likely to draw the wrath of Don Haskins. Those close to the program knew that only Haskins’ bark was larger than his bite. Not even the likes of Tim Hardaway and Nate “Tiny” Archibald, two UTEP legends on the way to NFL stardom, were immune. While privately hugging his players in love, The Bear would castigate them all as “playing like a sack of cats.”

The contributing writer is true orange, loyal to the University and to many friends in West Texas. Watch this space for Rex Miller’s original illustrations, found nowhere else by “Miners Are Forever.” Next: An insider’s view of UTEP legend James Forbes, who played on the U.S. Olympic basketball team and still coaches kids in El Paso today.

And while I have your attention, be sure and check out our brand-new Facebook page here.)

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.

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



What Has Become of Sean Kugler?

UTEP v Arkansas
Head Coach Sean Kugler of the UTEP Miners watches the replay on the scoreboard against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on September 5, 2015 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Miners 48-13. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos, after their first back-to-back losing seasons in nearly 50 years, recently canned Head Coach Vance Joseph. While most assistant coaches in college and the NFL have their tin cans tied to the H.C., the Denver Postreports the Broncos are expected to retain most of Joseph’s staff. This would include a fellow named Sean Kugler.

Kugler, you recall, is a UTEP grad, and was a fine player in the late-1980s on some of the best Miners’ teams in recent memory. Under Kugler, academics among football players and community outreach soared, but after a losing season in 2016, he vanished after losing to New Mexico State.

Was the blustery coach fired? Or did he pull the ripcord, and bail on his own?

Anyone who knows is not talking. This much we know: There were problems at home, not just on the gridiron. Without delving into the personal shadows, Kugler disappeared. Even some of his friends lost track of him, until published reports that Kugler had been hired in Denver.

Worse, Kugler left town a bitter man, blaming former staffers and fans for what he considered a lack of loyalty. No high road for Sean, only burning bridges that make it difficult, if not impossible, to return. So strange … bizarre, really. And so sad.

Sean had his freckles. His language, even in public, could melt asphalt, and he never seemed comfortable with the media. He was something of a ghost with Texas high school coaches, and he was stubborn to a fault in his low regard for kickers. For all that, Kugler was one of us, a Miner.

If you know your editor here, you know loyalty, especially among friends and teammates, ranks high in personal and professional priorities. I admired the guy for what he was trying to do.

As it happened, UTEP had to act, pronto. Rather than elevate the offensive or defensive coordinator, departed A.D. Bob Stull brought retired Mike Price out of his hideout in Idaho to finish the ‘17 campaign. Kugler’s jarring departure and thin roster led to an 0-12 record, and the hiring of Dana Dimel.

Bereft of team speed, and bitten by the injury bug, UTEP finished 1-11. The Miners will be better in 2019, but this healing process will take time.

Taste the persimmon of irony? After sticking it to UTEP, many say, the same guy may stick in Denver. Something happened with Sean Kugler, not just the football coach but to the man. It left a scar. A scar on UTEP football, a scar on people close to him.

Seldom have I held such high hopes for a guy, and wound up so disappointed. He and I were never close, but I was always a Sean Kugler guy. Something derailed his train, and left him an angry man.

Hope Sean finds peace.  —By Mark S. McDonald, Executive Editor

Applewhite Gets Fired – What it says about the parallel world of UTEP and UofH

Former UH Football Coach Major Applewhite
Former UH Football Coach Major Applewhite

University of Houston boxes Major Applewhite and, after only two season, sends him out to the Ship Channel, bon voyage.

In El Paso, UTEP Coach Dana Dimel must have greeted that off-season football news with a rueful smile and knowing nod. He not only has been there, done that, but has the souvenir tattoo to prove it.

In 2002, UofH ditched Dimel after his third season. He was 8-26 overall, but with Dimel recruits, Art Briles took the Cougars to a 7-6 record the next year, including a bowl bid.

Back to Applewhite: Despite an 8-4 regular season, he was shown the exit for three reasons … (1.) The Cougars lost four of their last five; (2.) The fifth defeat was a 70-14 egg laid in a bowl game vs. Army. Which brings us to a sticky wicket, the all-America defensive lineman, Ed Oliver.

The star defender is likely to be an NFL first-round draft choice in April. Given this probability, Oliver opted not to come back after a leg injury with a month left in the season. Video caught him in one pre-game froiic leaping to make one-handed catches, then showed him standing on the sidelines in street clothes. It gets worse.

In a late-season game, UofH provided sideline jackets for players. Oliver donned one for himself. “Those jackets are for players,” Applewhite reportedly said. Oliver puffed up, took it as a personal affront, and played the race card. Oliver is black, Applewhite is Caucasian.

At UofH, last thing any coach needs with the very hint of black-white overtones. UofH is not an easy place to win consistently, as history tells us and new coach Dana Holgerson is about to discover.

UofH has recent history with UTEP.

Not so many years ago, during the Mike Price era at UTEP, they were both in Conference USA, playing high-scoring contests that looked like video games. UofH, like UTEP, is a commuter school, begging an urban student body to support campus activities. Without home-grown talent, and interest from the Fifth Ward, UofH might as well go non-scholarship.

Applewhite knows better than to pick a fight he cannot win. Imagine Dimel or UTEP basketball coach Rodney Terry going into the barrios of El Paso, throwing tamales against the walls. Buena suerte with that, amigo.  —By Mark S. McDonald, Executive Editor