No Plus for the Miners — What ESPN’s New Deal with the Big 12 Does for UTEP and Conference USA

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By Mark S. McDonald Sr., undocumented college sports railbird

In case you missed it, cable sports gorilla ESPN just drove a $40 million wedge between NCAA haves and have-nots. Specifically, the network signed an agreement, beginning this year, for ESPN+ to deliver Big 12 football and basketball games on its online subscription streaming service.

This is new revenue for the Big 12, over and above its other TV contracts. Meanwhile, UTEP and Conference USA gets left holding the bag. Follow:

UTEP’s share of C-USA’s five-year deal CBS Sports currently brings in about $200,000 a year. A fraction of the Big 12 booty. North Texas Athletic Director Wren Baker last year said the league is looking for broader distribution and more cheese. Jolly good, amigo, but this latest news leak means the Big 12 lurches ahead. How?

Athletes thrive on two things — playing time and attention. The deal brings no new exposure to C-USA, only to its regional recruiting rivals.

Say, you happen to be a flagship running back from Dallas who wants to perform in front as many people as possible. Or, a power forward from Houston. All things being equal (in your young mind), you sign with a Big 12 school, not UTEP or Rice or La Tech. In basketball, the NCAA’s big cigars have already blown a cloud of smoke in our faces.

Tournament Selection Committee the past six years has relegated C-USA to one-bid status, where only the league champion makes it to the Big Dance. Even that single number is conducted off-Broadway.

Last month, C-USA champ Old Dominion was DOA, buried with a No. 14 seed. The Monarchs did what was the NCAA required of them: They lost in the first round, to Purdue. So what of UTEP?

History tells us UTEP has a winning past. I cling to that lifeline for the very oxygen I breathe. But owing to money, the Mountain Time Zone and empty seats, we know winning in El Paso is a challenge. So, we turn to UTEP’s fresh-faced leadership for optimism.

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Heather Wilson

Unlike a couple dozen idle sign-carriers with more spare time than free thoughts, I’m dialed into performance. The here and now. My spies tell me Heather Wilson is blessed with keen intellect and carries impeccable credentials. Fifty-two years ago, UTEP gave opportunity to a 6-2, 210-pound lineman who had played only one year of varsity football. I hope Wilson gets her chance, too.

Ditto for new-ish A.D. Jim Senter, plus two revenue-sport coaches going into their second seasons – football’s Dana Dimel and Rodney Terry in hoops. Time for all Miners to strap in tight.

Any UTEP climb back to national relevance will be daunting. ESPN did nothing to make it easier.

Mark 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 epic Arkansas vs. Texas football Shootout of 1969 and chaos in America. Copies available in late April 2019. For convenience of credit card, visit BeyondTheShootout.com.

Faithful UTEP Stalwart on the Mend

Miners Are Forever:Marilyn Cromeans copy

Always enjoy reading your thoughts, Mark. I had emergency back surgery on Feb. 19. Two vertebrae had twisted together and closed my spinal cord. Was in rehab for three weeks, and it will be a slow and long recovery, but I’m a little mobile with a walker. I need a good trainer! — Marilyn Cromeans, El Paso

{Editor’s Note: The writer of this notecould look far and wide and not find a better trainer than her own father. The late Ross “Mo” Moore was a nationally recognized athletic trainer who served the Miners for decades. A regular at UTEP home contests, Marilyn Cromeans is a longtime leader in the Women’s Auxillary of the University of Texas at El Paso, which generates scholarships for UTEP coeds. Marilyn, no doubt, is a Miner forever.}

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

UTEP at a Crossroads: It’s All on the Line

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UTEP’s sports future hinges on one key player. Who will it be?

 

Tubby Smith has made the rounds in the upper reaches of men’s college basketball – Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis. With all those stamps on his coaching passport, he is now the coach at High Point University, a small private, liberal arts outpost in North Carolina. He has a message for UTEP fans: 

“Coaches win games,” Smith says, “administrations win championships.”

If anyone should know, it is Orlando Henry “Tubby” Smith.

Tubby Smith
Tubby Smith

If anyone should be paying attention to the retirement of UTEP President Diana Natalicio, it is Miners fans. It’s the most important recruit UTEP athletics might ever sign.

Diana Natalicio
Diana Natalicio

Here’s why:

Coach Dana Dimel has recently finished his first painful season in football. Ditto for women’s basketball coach Kevin Baker. Men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry is less than a year on the job. 

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Dana Dimel
Rodney Terry
Rodney Terry

That trio takes marching orders from Athletic Director Jim Senter. He’s new, too. In the trickle-down, Senter has a boss, too — Natalicio’s replacement. 

The future of UTEP big three sports … indeed, all sports, is directly linked to the next University president, and how much importance he or she places on intercollegiate athletics. With continued (or expanded) support, especially in fund-raising, I believe UTEP sports will not only survive, but prosper. 

Without the new president’s blessing, tangible and visible, the Miners could wither, in all three sports. So, who will shake the money tree and lead UTEP sports in 2019 and beyond? 

We here at Miners Are Forever can only tell you we have our ears to the ground, our snout to the wind. If you know, feel free to share with us in the comments section below.

Ironic, isn’t it? The most vital player in all of UTEP athletics is about to take his/her place in the lineup – but will never suit up for the Miners. —By Mark S. McDonald, Executive Editor