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Wyoming’s Handy Man : Paul Roach’s Willingness to Do Almost Anything to Help Has Sparked an Athletic Resurgence in Laramie

Paul Roach hasn’t had a chance to go hunting or fishing lately, and that makes him happy.

Roach is busy doing all the things necessary to create a successful athletic program at the University of Wyoming. And that means doing almost everything.

Every morning, Roach, the athletic director, is busy with meetings and taking care of department duties, not the least of which involves the nation’s No. 5-ranked basketball team.

In the afternoon, Roach, the head football coach, is on the field with the most successful Cowboy football team in the last 10 years.

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If that isn’t enough, Roach, the recruiter, spends many nights traveling around the Rocky Mountains and beyond, trying to find athletes who will help keep things in Laramie in the same kind of shape for the next few years.

Earlier this week, after practice, Roach flew to Pueblo, Colo., to talk to one prospect, then flew back. The next night, he was off on another trip to Kansas.

Is that any way for a 59-year-old man, the nation’s second-oldest NCAA Division I coach (behind Joe Paterno, 61), to operate each day?

If you’re Paul Roach, it seems, it’s the only way.

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Today, Roach will be in San Diego, but he won’t be traveling alone. With him will be the Wyoming football team, which won the Western Athletic Conference championship and will play in the Holiday Bowl Wednesday against Iowa. It will be the first bowl game appearance since 1976 for the Cowboys, who were beaten that year, 41-7, by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

And the fans in Laramie are ready.

“We’re all up for it, that’s for sure,” Roach said. “A lot of people around here have been waiting a long time.”

After the 1976 Fiesta Bowl, Wyoming football managed only three winning seasons before this year.

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In November 1985, things were especially bad: The football team was in the middle of a 3-8 season, and the town was losing interest in the athletic program altogether. Roach had been Wyoming’s popular offensive coordinator from 1962 to 1970. He was so popular, in fact, that 15 years after he left, the university asked him back to direct the Wyoming booster organization, the Cowboy Joe Club.

“Paul really turned that whole thing around,” said Doug Skipper, Wyoming’s assistant director of sports information. “He went to every little town in Wyoming to meet all the people and get them interested in the university again.”

It was said that Roach could almost run for governor. Mike Sullivan, who is Wyoming’s governor, was telling everybody that he kept running into Roach on the campaign trail.

“I really do enjoy getting out and meeting with the people,” Roach said. “That’s the fun part of the job. Sure, I like hunting and fishing when I have some free time, but I don’t mind not having a lot of free time.”

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In August 1986, Athletic Director Gary Cunningham moved to Fresno State, and the school had another position to fill. Roach got the job.

“I knew so many people in Wyoming, and the place was very familiar to my family,” Roach said. “It seemed like a great chance to make a positive contribution to the university and the people of the state.”

Wyoming’s football team went 6-6 and the basketball team began to gain some national prominence in Roach’s first year. Then there was another opening in January. Dennis Erickson, after one year as football coach, moved to Washington State. The fans in Laramie were upset, and morale was low. Erickson had started a turnaround, then left.

Roach immediately began a search for a replacement. He went to the University Board of Trustees at the end of January with a couple of candidates in mind. He wasn’t one of them.

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But after meeting with him for a while, the board decided they wanted Roach to be their football coach. That, along with all of his other duties.

“To be honest, the burning desire to become a major college football coach had already passed me by 10 years ago,” Roach said. “But they needed somebody, and after I talked it over with the members of the board, I decided to take the job.”

Roach had never been a head coach before, although he did have excellent credentials. After coaching at Wyoming in the 1960s, he was a member of John Madden’s staff when the Oakland Raiders were winning three division titles (1972-74).

He was also the offensive coordinator under Bart Starr at Green Bay for two seasons before joining the Denver Broncos as offensive backfield coach from 1977 to 1980. (In 1977, Denver played in the Super Bowl.) Roach was in private business, from 1980 to 1985, before the university lured him back.

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“All of the gentlemen that I worked with had a hand in what I am today,” Roach said. “They each taught me different things, but one thing they all taught me was to work hard.”

And this year, Roach passed the message along.

“I don’t think when this season began that the expectations for this team were as good as what we wound up accomplishing,” Roach said. “We had a new staff, and we had to gain the confidence of the players. At the beginning, they didn’t know what to expect.”

Roach and his team immediately gained confidence, beating perennial WAC contender Air Force, 27-13, in the first game.

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The Cowboys struggled the next two weeks, losing to Washington State and Oklahoma State. But they then beat Iowa State, routed defending WAC champion San Diego State, 52-10, and knocked off BYU, 29-27, in Provo.

By that time, Roach had plenty of believers.

“If you asked me what kind of coach he was, I’d tell you that he’s the best coach you could ever play for,” said Craig Burnett, a senior quarterback who was recruited by Erickson. “He came in and gave us a running game to go with our passing attack, and that’s what we needed.

“He never really gets on you. He just leads by example. Once in a while, if you mess up, he’ll kind of throw a little joke in there as he’s telling you what you did wrong. When I’m having a bad day, he’ll tell me that he’s going to send me to the bullpen.”

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Roach is going strong and enjoying himself. When he took over as coach, he made it clear that he didn’t want anyone thinking that he’d only be around for one season, as Erickson had been.

He hasn’t set any time frame, but those around him figure he’ll coach for at least a few more seasons.

Maybe by then the Wyoming basketball team will need a new coach.


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