by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

EDITOR’S NOTE: Along with our summer College FB conference previews, we’ll be providing some corresponding retrospective pieces on all of the leagues as we honor the 57th publishing season of THE GOLD SHEET, set to commence this fall! Preceding our Mountain West 2013 preview is a look back at the days when many of the current conference members performed in the old WAC, and a particular program with a much more colorful history than modern-day fans might realize...

Although the WAC ceased to exist as a football conference after last season, most veteran college football insiders know that the pulse of the old shoot-‘em-up league has nonetheless endured since the late ‘90s in the form of the Mountain West Conference. And hard as it might be for modern-day gridiron enthusiasts, infatuated by ESPN and new conference TV networks, some of the more interesting and newsworthy programs from our earlier publishing years at TGS actually featured entries not among the traditional “big boys” of college football, but rather some of those who populated the old WAC.

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And among those, few have a more colorful history than...Wyoming?

Indeed, Wyo's football history might be the most-interesting of any present day Mountain West entry. The Cowboys were in fact one of the first teams in the region to make a splash on the national stage, and Laramie has long served as a stopover point for high-profile coaches.

The origins of the old WAC can be traced to more than a half century ago, when various members of the old Border, Skyline, and Pacific Coast Conferences, mostly represented by schools in the Rocky Mountain region and desert southwest, eventually came together to form a new affiliation called the Western Athletic Conference. While PCC refugees Washington State, Oregon, and Oregon would eventually align with the newly-formed AAWU, and New Mexico State and Utah State had their applications denied, the new WAC conglomeration would make its debut in 1962, featuring Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The affiliation quickly developed an identity and personality of its own, featuring colorful coaches and high-powered offenses and lots of shoot 'em up football representative of the roots of the region.

The remainder of the '60s were indeed an exciting time in the WAC, as schools such as Arizona State (under Frank Kush) and, yes, Wyoming (under Lloyd Eaton), emerged as national brands.

The progress continued into the '70s, and the league entered the true mainstream of college football with the introduction of the Fiesta Bowl in 1971 at ASU's Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The Fiesta would feature the WAC champion vs. an at-large opponent in an era in which bowl games had yet to proliferate. Sure enough, the Fiesta soon became a desired postseason destination. By 1974, the bowl had secured a major TV network contract with CBS after an early affiliation with the old independent, Mizlou Network, with Valley resident and play-by-play broadcast legend Ray Scott working the microphone in '74 for the BYU-Oklahoma State battle. The 1975 game (right) was a highlight as it featured Kush's unbeaten and 7th-ranked ASU side against once-beaten and 6th-ranked Nebraska, when a late TD pass from backup QB Fred Mortensen to WR John Jefferson, and a subsequent field goal by Kush's son Danny, gave the Sun Devils a memorable 17-14 win, still recalled fondly in the Valley of the Sun. Kush's side subsequently ranked second behind only Barry Switzer's Oklahoma in the final 1975 wire service polls.

Later in the decade, after ASU and Arizona bolted for the newly-expanded Pac-10, BYU emerged as the league's flagship program under HC LaVell Edwards, whose high-powered offenses dominated the league and even helped the Cougs to an undefeated mark and national title in 1984.

(Yes, the WAC has produced a national football champion within the last 29 years!)

But along the way, Wyoming was usually a contender and occasionally newsworthy member of the league...although not always for the reasons the school would have desired.

Cowboy football prominence pre-dates the creation of the WAC in 1962, from the days of its membership in the old Skyline Conference. Coach Bowden Wyatt, a disciple of Gen. Bob Neyland, took 1950 Wyo to its first bowl, the Gator on New Year's Day 1951, where the Cowboys won 20-7 over a Washington & Lee side that was minus its star fullback, future New York Jets coach Walt Michaels, who was sidelined by an appendicitis attack. Wyatt, however, began a trend of winning Cowboy coaches moving away from Laramie when taking the Arkansas job in 1953 before being hired by mentor Neyland at Tennessee in 1955. Post-Wyatt, it was Bob Devaney putting the Cowboys back on the map with a Sun Bowl team in 1956 before being lured away to Nebraska. In later years, familiar coaching names such as Fred Akers (1975-76), Pat Dye (1980), and Dennis Erickson (1986) made brief pit stops in Laramie before making their names elsewhere, while others like Fritz Shurmur (four losing seasons between 1971-74) and Joe Tiller (1991-96) stuck around a bit longer before making their marks elsewhere.

Perhaps the most successful, and certainly most controversial, Wyo coach was the aforementioned Lloyd Eaton, whose Wyo teams from 1962-70 featured future NFL All-Pros such as RB Jim Kiick and OG Conrad Dobler. Kiick was a member of the 1967 Sugar Bowl squad that finished the regular season 10-0 and ranked sixth in the final regular-season polls. Those Pokes, helped by a couple of field goals (including a then-Sugar record 49-yarder) by All-American kicker Jerry DePoyster, also took a 13-0 halftime lead in the mud of New Orleans on New Year's Day vs. LSU before the Tigers, behind QB Nelson Stokley (a future coach and papa of modern-day WR Brandon Stokley), rallied for a 20-13 win.

Eaton's enduring legacy, however, involves a much more controversial theme, as he was caught in the middle of a planned protest by 14 black members of the Cowboys before an October 18, 1969 home game against BYU. The players, whose plight has been recorded in the recently-published book entitled Black 14 by Ryan Thornburn, wanted to wear black armbands in protest of the LDS policy of not allowing blacks into the priesthood, and of course targeted the game against the LDS school, BYU, to implement their subtle protest.

At the time, Eaton's 1969 squad had gotten off to a flying 4-0 start and would climb as high as 15th in the polls that season, but the events in and around the BYU game would haunt the program for years.

The Wyo campus was mostly free of the racial tension and anti-Vietnam war strife that had gripped many campuses in the late '60s. There were sporadic but small anti-war protests in Laramie, such as a march in the fall of 1969 in support of an anti-war moratorium. But inspired by actions of students on other campuses, a small number of black students at Wyo formed a Black Student Alliance, whose influence soon spread to the black members of the football team.

As detailed in the excellent book, College Football, by John Sayle Watterson, on the Thursday prior to the BYU game, Eaton (shown at right with LSU counterpart Charlie McClendon at the 1968 Sugar Bowl) had heard from the Alliance of a demonstration planned for the clash vs. the Provo, Utah-based Cougars. Summoning Joe Williams, one of his team captains and a member of the BSA, Eaton warned that any players who wore the black armbands on the field for the BYU game would be dismissed from the team.

On Friday morning, Williams and the other 13 black members of the Cowboy team appeared in Eaton's office, wearing their armbands, and asked for a meeting with the coach. Eaton obliged--sort of--leading the players to the bleachers of the adjacent War Memorial Flieldhouse and thus delivered a lecture. At the outset, Eaton laid down his law. "I can save you fellows a lot of time and a lot of words," said Eaton to the assembled 14. "You are all through at Wyoming." When the players tried to plead their case, they were told to shut up.

Remember, these were sensitive racial times, not long after urban unrest had resulted in devastating riots in locales such as Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Washington, D.C. And even though Laramie was off the beaten path, news spread quickly. State authorities reacted as if their university had come under siege; the board of trustees rushed to Laramie to hold a special session with Governor Stanley Hathaway, Wyo president William Carlson, and the dissident players. The meeting, which lasted for hours, failed to reach a settlement with the 14 athletes, who would not back down from their vow to wear their armbands in the game. Eaton's decision to dismiss the players was thus upheld.

Meanwhile, a contingent of National Guardsmen had been summoned to Laramie amid rumors that busloads of paramilitary Black Panthers from Denver might raid the stadium during the BYU game. The Guardsmen waited under the grandstands for the trouble, but the buses from Denver never arrived. The 14 dismissed players were in the stands for the game, which an energized Wyo won 40-7, but the seeds of disruption had been planted. After a win the next week over San Jose State to push the record to 6-0, the Cowboys lost their next four games, and Eaton's regime ended the following season after an unsightly 1-9 mark. It would not be until later in the '70s that the Cowboy football program would again be able to attract black recruits in numbers and finally recover.

Years later, the "Black 14" were honored with a statue that now stands in the Wyoming Student Union. And the LDS changed its policy regarding black priests in 1971.

And you thought we were kidding about Wyo's interesting and controversial football past!


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