The Rebuild: A behind the scenes look at the resurgence of UTEP football

Courtesy of UTEP Football

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EL PASO – No one involved was under any illusions. The charge of taking UTEP athletics, specifically the football team, to respectability was an uphill battle. Director of Athletics Jim Senter saw something most didn’t at UTEP: Potential. He took the job in the fall of 2017, in the middle of a football season that would end with an 0-12 record and a vacancy at head coach.

Outsiders saw it as a dead end. El Paso is in a remote region of Texas. It is the only city in the state on Mountain Time. More people live across the border in Juarez than on the American side of El Paso. The previous coach, Sean Kugler, went 18-36 in his tenure from 2013-2017. Mike Price and Bob Stull were the only head coaches at UTEP to truly experience success.

UTEP athletics needed everything. It needed more money. It needed new coaches. It needed confidence. Senter, a man who helped instill those traits at The Citadel before taking the UTEP job, had a plan. He also had optimism. 

“Somehow, we’ve got to get a group of young men who just went 0-12 to believe that better days are ahead,” Senter explained in his office. “When we started to look for a head football coach, we wanted someone who had been through tough times and had the patience and fortitude to handle the undertaking. Unfortunately, people think you can flip a switch and turn things around, but there is a lot of work that goes into being a successful football program.” 

Enter Dana Dimel. Dimel was known as a rebuilder. He went 22-13 in three seasons at Wyoming in the late 1990s. He then helped turn around the University of Houston at the turn of the century, winning five games in 2002 with a team that went winless the previous year. Dimel was given the premature axe in Houston when a new athletic director came to town, and Dimel found himself as an assistant under Bill Snyder for the next decade.   

Senter hired Dimel before arriving on campus. It only took him a week to identify and hire his leading candidate. The Snyder ties helped. UTEP would need to rebuild and rebrand in a way that Kansas State did in the Big 12. The Miners weren’t going to draw in major recruits from metropolitan areas. UTEP needed to identify under-the-radar talent and hit the JUCO market hard. 

“Dana Dimel had seen that done in those years at Kansas State with Coach Snyder,” Senter said. “He was able to do it at Wyoming and was doing it at Houston. He knew what to expect and he knew what it takes.”

Dimel enjoyed a rebuild because he considers himself a project. He was admittedly a poor student in high school and wound up at a JUCO. A JUCO can do two things for a young person: It will chew you up or polish you up. For Dimel, he left more polished. He was on top of the world after his Wyoming tenure. He was almost hired at Oklahoma when the Sooners elected to go with Bob Stoops. He was in the running for the Iowa job, but the Hawkeyes settled on one of their own in Kirk Ferentz. 

Dimel was passed over for both jobs, so he landed in Houston because the Cougars were paying big for a football coach. The problem was that Dimel wasn’t given enough time to complete his rebuild. The Houston football program he inherited was awful. The one he departed was improving. That hurt Dimel. So, when Senter contacted him for the job in El Paso, Dimel wanted assurances that he’d get the time required to see the overhaul through to the other side. 

“Jim (Senter) told me that he wasn’t even going to judge us on the football field until Year 4,” Dimel said. “That was what I needed. I just couldn’t go through another rebuild with my legs getting cut out from under me because that was heartbreaking. I wanted a chance, and I knew this could be a better job than maybe it was in the past.” 

The attention moved towards building a football team capable of winning. It wasn’t going to happen overnight. Dimel used the blueprint he learned at Kansas State to instill a winning mentality. He needed a group of players who suffered through an 0-12 season to believe that better days were ahead if the process was trusted. A process proven in Manhattan, Kansas. 

When I arrived for my sit-down with Dimel, he spent the first few minutes asking me about my family. He was sizing up my character, and my ability to care about other people, in the same way he does a recruit. Dimel doesn’t believe in recruiting talent. He recruits people. He recruits family.

“We don’t miss on talent, but we can miss on character. If we recruit character, then the rest can take care of itself,” he explained. “Whenever I sit with a player, I always ask about their family and how they grew up. When they can tell me a lot of stuff, I know they’re a family person who can be part of a group that is bigger than themselves. If they can’t, it tells me that they might be selfish or unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good. That’s how I evaluate guys. I want guys who care about the people around them.” 

An untapped market 

El Paso can feel like an island in the middle of a desert. A dry, isolated area known for heat and tremendous Mexican food. Senter and Dimel want to add UTEP athletics to the growing reasons to visit El Paso, or at least pay attention to it. The words "human capital" was thrown around a few times during my visit. The proof took place Saturday night when over 31,000 spectators piled into the Sun Bowl to watch the Miners take on the undefeated UTSA Roadrunners. It was a glimpse at how special football can be in El Paso. 

“We have enough human capital here that if we can get people off the sideline and into the game of support, this place could be as good as any place in the country,” Senter said. “We should be making a case to be in the Big 12 if we’re winning in football and men’s basketball.”

That might sound crazy for a program recently left behind during conference realignment. UTEP wasn’t invited to the American Athletic Conference alongside intrastate rivals UTSA, North Texas, and Rice. The Miners weren’t invited to the Sun Belt alongside a few other members of Conference USA, and the Mountain West made it clear that it wasn’t looking at expanding during this window. 

Senter doesn’t blink. He contends that the mission of UTEP athletics remains the same regardless of conference affiliation in the short term. He said that the goal of UTEP athletics is to educate young people, provide the best experience for the athletes by playing FBS football, and to compete for championships. None of those goals change if UTEP plays in Conference USA or the Mountain West or goes independent. He looks around a conference such as the Big 12 and sees more advantages in UTEP’s favor than disadvantages. 

“Look at all those other cities in the Big 12, what do they have that we don’t?” he asked. “We have 25,000 students, too. We’re in a big market. The difference is the investment of the community and donor base back into the enterprise. That’s where we need to catch up to those schools.”

To catch up, Senter sold a vision to potential donors while Dimel went to work selling his vision of football success to recruits at the high school and JUCO level. Dimel was humbled after his head coaching experience at Houston. He knew the roster he inherited was also humbled, if not embarrassed about a 0-12 season in 2017. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Dimel knew UTEP football wasn’t going to be built in one offseason, or even in two. UTEP won one game in 2018. The Miners won one game in 2019. But no one threw in the towel. Dimel thinks it is because of the people he recruited. Players used to struggle. Players who value family and know that tough times are temporary. Remember, he’s more focused on recruiting character than talent. 

“I didn’t doubt myself or the process when we had two one-win seasons,” Dimel said. “I knew what we were doing was proven to work if we could all keep believing in it. The kids believed in it and stayed the course.” 

The 2020 season offered a new challenge. UTEP started the season 3-1 and was gearing towards bowl eligibility. Then the pandemic took hold in El Paso and no teams wanted to take a trip out west. That forced UTEP to play the remaining schedule on the road. The group lost four straight to end the season at 3-5, but a seed was planted. The players point to the Louisiana Tech loss on Oct. 10 of 2020 as a turning point. 

“After that loss, everyone was devastated,” UTEP wide receiver Justin Garrett said. “It felt like we were right there with those guys and that we should be winning those games. We hit the ground running in the offseason, and from there, we developed a culture and atmosphere to expect to win and to do everything we could to be a better team.” 

For Dimel, that was the goal. He wanted his program to expect to win. A hard task for a team with three wins in three seasons from 2017 through 2019. The team doubled that win total in 2020 and knew the talent, and chemistry, was there for a strong season in 2021. Everyone in the program believed, so the goal shifted to convincing the outside world. 

UTEP breaks out of its bubble 

Nearly a year after the loss to Louisiana Tech that the UTEP players feel sparked a belief that the Miners could compete against Conference USA competition, the Bulldogs were welcomed to the Sun Bowl. UTEP was 5-1 and needed one more win to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. The Miners achieved that goal in a 19-3 victory. 

The moment was monumental. Not just for Senter or Dimel, but for the players who stuck it out through all the lows associated with UTEP football. Six wins might not feel like a lot to fans of blueblood programs, but six wins were more victories as the UTEP program achieved in the previous three seasons combined. The schedule still had five games remaining on the schedule, but UTEP players are excused for soaking in the moment. 

“Maybe we were the laughingstock of college football a few seasons ago, but who is laughing now?” UTEP defensive end Praise Amaewhule asked rhetorically. “This feels a lot better than going to a big school where they’re already winning. It makes us cherish the success more knowing you made that success happened.”

That success was never guaranteed. The players knew the talent level was rising due to the increased intensity on the practice field. Depth was building and athleticism was growing. Dimel leaned on his contacts inside Texas high school football from his time at Houston and in the JUCO ranks thanks to his time with Snyder at Kansas State. The whispers of a big season began in fall camp. 

“Going into fall camp we thought we’d be a solid team that could compete in Conference USA,” UTEP cornerback Dennis Barnes said. Barnes admitted to not knowing anything about UTEP when he was first approached at his JUCO. “At the end of the day, that is what is happening. Our work ethic and chemistry kept improving, so a lot of things are going good for us and that’s a blessing.” 

UTEP began the season 2-0 with wins over New Mexico State and Bethune-Cookman. A loss at Boise State slowed momentum, but it was restored two weeks later with a win over New Mexico. The momentum grew when UTEP started C-USA play with wins over Old Dominion and Southern Miss. It reached a fever pitch with the win over La Tech that moved UTEP to six wins and into bowl eligibility with five games remaining on the schedule. 

The team could feel the shift in perception around campus, and even around the city of El Paso. More shirts were being worn in public. More players recognized when they were out and about. The city was starting to see the vision Senter and Dimel saw years earlier. UTEP football was helping unite the area. 

“Walking around campus, I’m starting to hear more students talking about football and attending the games,” UTEP wide receiver Jacob Cowing said. “This morning, I went to get my car washed, and a guy came up to me to tell me that he was proud of us for how we’re playing this season. It feels like there is a lot more buzz in the student body and the community about UTEP football.” 

The overhaul isn’t complete. The destination yet to be attained. UTEP isn’t satisfied with being a one-year feel-good story. The Miners aren’t even satisfied with bowl eligibility. Dimel and his players think UTEP can be a yearly contender. That this is the starting line, and not the finish. One of the reasons is that the players are fully bought in. There is a confidence and a simplicity to the success that comes out when the players describe the mindset of the football team. Just read how Amaewhule describes the defense, a unit ranked amongst the best in the nation in total defense. 

“There are three things we focus on: effort, physicality, and emotion,” he explained. “We go out there and play with phenomenal effort. We have guys flying to the ball across the field. With the physicality, we’re just going to hit you, man. We don’t care who you are, you’re getting hit. As for emotion, we came in after 0-12 and during 1-11s. People like to win, so that losing can weigh on you as a person and as a team emotionally. We have a lot to play for. We can play for one another. We can recall crying together after losses and play with that emotion. This is an emotional game.” 

UTEP is on a two-game losing streak after defeats to Florida Atlantic and UTSA. Eight wins isn’t out of the realm of possibilities given that North Texas and Rice remain on the schedule. UTEP takes a trip to Denton on Saturday in hopes of stopping the skid. The Miners host Rice on Nov. 20 before ending the regular season with a trip to UAB. The hope is that a bowl game follows, but the Miners might need one more win to truly guarantee an invite. 

Still, that won’t stop those who were around at the start of the project from enjoying the moment. 

“It is rewarding to start seeing the benefits of our hard work,” Senter said. “Our fan base is feeling good. Our coaches and student athletes are feeling great. I can see the energy and the pep in their step. I’m proud of everyone who is involved, and we still have a way to go. Now, we need to handle success and keep pushing ourselves past these expectations because pressure comes with success.”

And Senter doesn’t plan from hiding from the pressure or underselling his dreams for UTEP athletics. 

“This program has unlimited potential,” he said. “There are over two million people in this area with only one FBS football team. That’s hard to find in the country. We own this region. This is our market.”  

 

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