By at least one yardstick, Bob Stull was a success his first season as football coach at Texas-El Paso: The Miners finished next-to-last in the Western Athletic Conference.
At many colleges, UTEP's 4-8 record could be cause for a coach's firing, but the mark was the Miners' best since 1974, when they went 4-7.
"Everyone on the team wanted to get rid of the old coaches," said quarterback Sammy Garza, who was fourth in the nation in total offense with 250.2-yards per game this season.
UTEP joined the nine-team WAC in 1968 and has been at the bottom of the league 13 times and next-to-last twice, including this season. The Miners' best showing was sixth place in 1969.
"You can only go so far losing and losing," Garza said.
That is what Texas-El Paso did under Bill Yung who was fired after last season with a four-year record of 7-39. Yung's teams never won more than two games in a season and the Miners were 1-10 in his last, outscored 375-196. However, the Miners's lone victory was a 23-16 decision over Brigham Young.
Stull, who came to UTEP from the University of Massachusetts in January, managed two conference victories this year to finish ahead of Utah.
It was a modest but promising improvement for a traditional underdog in college football.
"The first year is the hardest because nobody understands exactly what you want, including the coaches," Stull, 41, said.
Stull also helped several players star individually, most noticeably Garza, a 6-1, 185-pound senior from Harlingen, Tex., who threw for 3,140 yards while completing 62.9% of his passes.
"I was happy for the change because I knew I could throw the ball," Garza said. "That's all I wanted--a chance to throw and show them what I had."
Garza ranked 18th in the nation in passing efficiency with a 134.9 rating. The leader in that category this year was Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde of Miami, Fla. at 165.8. An average player ranks at about 100 points, according to Jim Wright of the NCAA's statistics office.
After UTEP's season-ending 55-45 victory over Utah, Garza was named the conference's offensive player of the week.
Despite a grueling schedule that included five straight road games--including Iowa and Tennessee--a home game against conference champion San Diego State, and then two more on the road, Stull's leadership has given the Miners a much-needed lift, Garza said.
"There were a lot of games that were very close games," he said. "Lots of games that last year we wouldn't have even been in--Air Force, for example."
UTEP lost at home to Air Force 23-21 when Mike Johnson kicked a 44-yard field goal with one second left.
"Now you would go out on the field knowing you're going to win, instead of 'Maybe we'll win,"' as was the feeling under Yung, Garza said.