It’s Clemson, Alabama and everybody else right now.
The last four years, at least one of them has played for a national championship. In three of those years, they’ve played each other for the crown. Alabama’s been doing this for a while under one of the all-time greats in Nick Saban, who’s won five national championships in his 13 years in Tuscaloosa and six overall. Clemson’s the new kid on the block under Dabo Swinney, who’s won nearly 80 percent of his games since taking over the program in 2008.
They’re the latest additions to elite eras.
There were Pete Carroll’s Southern California Trojans and Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators, who each won multiple national championships in the early-to-mid 2000s. Boise State won more games than any Football Bowl Subdivision program in the first decade of the new century. Florida State (89 percent) had the highest winning percentage in the ‘90s, Nebraska (83.7) and Miami (83) owned the ‘80s, Oklahoma (87.7) dominated the ‘70s and Bear Bryant’s Alabama squad (86.5) was the toast of the ‘60s.
Then there was Wyoming.
The ‘60s were as good as it’s been for the Cowboys’ program. Wyoming started the decade winning 14 of 19 games under Bob Devaney, who parlayed that success into the head coaching job at Nebraska. The wins kept coming for Wyoming under Devaney’s former assistant, Lloyd Eaton, who continued what turned into 21 straight non-losing seasons at Wyoming — the longest such streak for a program where winning has historically been hard to come by.
“It was really a big deal,” said Kevin McKinney, Wyoming’s senior associate athletic director for external relations and longtime football radio color analyst.
It only got bigger in the latter part of the decade. Eaton led the Cowboys to just their third-ever 10-win season and a Sun Bowl win over Florida State in 1966. The next season, 10 more wins and a berth in the Sugar Bowl. Wyoming lost a one-possession game to LSU but climbed as high as No. 6 in the national polls — the highest ranking in school history.
By the time the 1968 season was over, the Cowboys, who’d made the move to the Western Athletic Conference just seven years earlier, had their third straight conference championship. With a roster that was as integrated as one could find in college football at the time — the Cowboys had 17 African-American players on the ‘68 team and 14 a year later — Wyoming won its first four games of the 1969 season by a combined 126-44 and was emerging as a national power, having won 31 of its last 36 games.
“No doubt about it. We would’ve won the conference, and then we would’ve gone to the Sugar Bowl and won that,” said John Griffin, a flanker on that ‘69 season. “We were being recruited after the fourth game of the season. We were No. 12 in the nation, and the powers that be were recruiting us like, ‘If you guys continue on your winning streak, we want you guys to play in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the year.’ That’s how good we were.”
But Griffin and Wyoming’s other 13 black varsity players were soon gone. The Cowboys’ momentum followed.
Eaton made the controversial decision to dismiss the players who will be forever known as the Black 14 when the group approached him in the War Memorial Fieldhouse the day before the BYU game that season. They wanted to ask for their coach’s permission to wear armbands against the Cougars as a way to protest the way some of them were treated against BYU the previous season as well as the racist policies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which still owns and operates BYU.
After the university’s board of trustees, president William Carlson and Gov. Stanley Hathaway backed Eaton’s decision in a special meeting late Friday night, the Cowboys walloped BYU 40-7 without their black players.
“The vibe was, ‘We don’t need them,’” said McKinney, an athletic department intern at the time. “‘We’re going to do well anyway.’”
But the 14 weren’t just black players. They were also some of the Cowboys’ best.
More than half of them were starters, and according to an article published in 2014 for the Wyoming State Historical Society, which cited the statistics published in the official program for the BYU game, they were among Wyoming’s most productive after the first four games. Griffin led the team in receiving yards. Joe Williams and Tony Gibson were third and fourth, respectively, in rushing. Another running back, Ted Williams, took over once Joe Williams was injured.
Split end Ron Hill led the team in kickoff returns. Tony McGee was well on his way to All-America status off the edge with 11 sacks to that point. Seven of those came in Wyoming’s 27-25 comeback win over Air Force.
Without those players, Wyoming couldn’t keep up with the better teams on its schedule — a shortcoming that soon became a trend. The Cowboys, who hadn’t scored less than 23 points through their first five games, mustered just 16 in a nine-point win over San Jose State. And a defense that had held teams to nine points or fewer in all but one of the first six games began to crack.
Wyoming tumbled out of the polls with a four-game losing streak to end the season. The Cowboys were outscored 129-50 in those games.
“It was so hard because we’d been used to such success, and we were just getting hammered,” McKinney said. “It was very difficult. It was tough on our fan base. We became used to being really good, and now we had to deal with really bad games, ineptness and all of that stuff.”
Said Ted Williams, “That’s the sad part about it. We don’t know how far we could’ve went.”
Griffin and Don Meadows, a lineman from Denver, returned to the team the next season after being voted back by their white teammates, but they were about the only black players that would touch the program after the Black 14 incident. Ted Williams briefly rejoined the team but left before the Cowboys’ first game of the 1970 season.
Wyoming ended up with just six black players on the varsity team in 1970 and 1971, and many of them came from the freshman team the previous season. (Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity team then.) In a reminiscence of the incident more than 30 years later, Carson wrote the ability to recruit black players was one of the primary concerns for Fritz Shurmur, who was promoted to head coach after the 1970 season, since it “was and is essential for a successful team.”
“I know the coaches said they just couldn’t even get into houses,” McKinney said. “We were off-limits really as much as black players were to schools. (The Black 14) were virtually blackballed, and so was Wyoming.”
Eaton was fired after a 1-9 season in 1970, leading to Shurmur’s promotion. But with Wyoming being largely radioactive as far as prospective black athletes were concerned, the Cowboys struggled to keep up.
“They would’ve been recruiting more African-American players,” Gibson said. “The caliber would’ve been better of the players that wanted to go there. If someone’s looking at you and you’ve got a winning program calling your number, you’re going to show interest in that. I think that was a huge part of their downfall to this day I would suspect.”
That season started a string of six straight losing seasons for the Cowboys. They had more coaches than they did winning seasons (four) over the next 17 seasons. Wyoming went through seven of them in a 15-year span.
Fred Akers succeeded Shurmur, who left after the 1974 season, for two years before leaving for Texas. Pat Dye was in and out in 1980, leading the Cowboys to a 6-5 record before bolting for Auburn. Dennis Erickson also had a cup of coffee with Wyoming with a 6-6 mark in 1986 before going to Washington State and eventually Arizona State.
“The more Wyoming lost, the more the sentiment became Lloyd made a mistake,” McKinney said. “We hoped Fritz, as a top assistant and great defensive guy, could turn it around. He couldn’t. We had some good players. Some pretty good white players. But we didn’t have the athletic ability.
“It just snowballed to where we can’t get the players. We can’t beat anybody. How are we going to turn this around?”
If there was a bright side to the coaching carousel, it further distanced the Cowboys from Eaton’s tenure. Wyoming eventually started signing black players again, and they helped Paul Roach get the Cowboys the closest they’ve been to the success they had two decades earlier. Roach coached Wyoming to 21 wins and back-to-back Holiday Bowl appearances from 1987-88 as the Cowboys vaulted as high as No. 10 in the Associated Press poll during the ‘88 season.
But consistency has been hard to come by. Wyoming had another 10-win season under Joe Tiller in 1996, but the Cowboys have had just eight winning seasons since. Wyoming hasn’t won more than eight games in any of those seasons, and it hasn’t won three straight conference championships since the Black 14 incident.
So is it realistic to expect Wyoming to ever replicate those glory days?
The college game is far different than it was 50 years ago, which won’t make it easy. There’s an 85-scholarship limit that wasn’t in place then, the school’s geographical isolation will always make it difficult to fill those spots with blue-chip prospects, and there’s less money at Wyoming than some of its Group of Five counterparts. The athletic department’s budget is around $40 million, which Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman has estimated is in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West.
“I think it’s realistic to expect we can ring the bell,” Burman said. “What I mean by that is things line up. We’re really good, we have a bunch of seniors, we have a really good coaching staff, stay healthy and have an awesome year.”
It’ll likely take a conference championship to crack the polls — and the national conversation — again. The highest-ranked Group of Five champion automatically qualifies for a New Year’s Six bowl game. The last three (Western Michigan in 2016, UCF in 2017 and 2018) have finished in the top 15.
Wyoming got close three years ago when the Cowboys won the Mountain Division title before falling to San Diego State in the 2016 Mountain West championship game. There’s momentum in the program with three straight non-losing seasons.
The Cowboys are largely staying within their geographical footprint when it comes to recruiting, but one state outside of it that head coach Craig Bohl and his staff have emphasized recently is Texas. Wyoming signed seven players from the Lone Star State in the 2019 recruiting cycle, including three-star Titus Swen, who’s already part of the rotation at running back.
Continuing to dip into Texas in addition to California, Colorado and other states nearby will help increase the Cowboys’ talent level, Bohl said, but development will be most important if the program is going to get back to where it once was.
“Our recruiting model, we need to stay on task with that,” Bohl said. “I think the strides we’ve made in the weight room, we need to accelerate that. We need to continue to recruit some more speed and athleticism, and then the depth within our program needs to be deeper. We’re not taking a shortcut, and I know those are elements to building long-term success.”