If Dana Dimel builds it, they will come: From winless to a sold-out Sun Bowl for the UTEP Miners

Photo by UTEP Football

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The FBS season in Texas begins Saturday when North Texas travels to El Paso to face Conference USA foe UTEP in front of what is expected to be the first sell out of the Sun Bowl since a 2008 contest against Texas. This is on the heels of the Miners’ first winning record – and bowl appearance – since 2014. The last sell out for a conference game came against Marshall in 2005. 

The excitement building around football in El Paso is the product of hard work and patience. UTEP athletic director Jim Senter and head coach Dana Dimel sat in the athletic offices two years ago and dissected every aspect of the Miners’ football program. The coaching staff. The admin. The trainers and every member of the support staff. Even each of the scholarship players and the donors who encountered the program. It took over three hours. 

Dimel took over as head coach of the struggling UTEP football program prior to the 2018 season. The Miners went winless the year before his arrival. They went 1-11 in both of his first two seasons in El Paso, but entering 2020, hopes were high. Corners were being turned. A plan was formulating. And Dimel – a coach known for enjoying rebuilding projects – was speaking Senter’s language. 

“I remember leaving there and thinking ‘Man, we have a plan and we’re going to start seeing the benefits,’” Senter said. “There is no way you can be that dedicated to a plan and the process without beginning to see results.” 

The pandemic prevented the Miners from seeing more of those results in 2020. UTEP went 3-5 that season with opponents refusing to travel to El Paso due to COVID-19 concerns following a Sept. 19 win over Abilene Christian. The Miners went 3-1 to start the year and headed into C-USA play with high hopes. Those hopes were dashed with an 0-4 conference record as the Miners were forced to play each game on the road. That culminated in a “home game” against North Texas in Denton on Dec. 11. The Miners lost by two points after not playing since Nov. 14 against UTSA. 

Two seasons later, and the Miners enter the 2022 season with expectations to finish in the top-half of college football and reach a bowl game for the second consecutive season. The city of El Paso is backing the Miners and Dimel can’t help remembering the hard times his program felt during those first three seasons, which resulted in a 5-27 record. He admits it’d be hard to believe that the Sun Bowl would be sold out for a conference game in 2022 if he was told that back in 2020. 

“We’ve had to earn it because nothing was given to us,” Dimel said. “It is really cool and well deserved. It is a testament to how many steps these guys have taken.”

Dimel won’t take any of the credit. Heck, he’ll barely stop to consider the accomplishments his program achieved over the last 12 months. The Miners were routinely considered one of the bottom five programs in the country. Entering his fifth season, Dimel is on track to put the Miners atop of C-USA when the next exodus of programs takes place after the 2022 season. All he required was time. He learned at previous stops – specifically a three-year stint at Houston that was cut short in 2002 – that time was his best friend. 

“The only thing he asked for when I hired him for the job was that I give him the full five years to turn it around before we started to worry about the football on the field,” Senter said. “Really, we would’ve done it in year three, but the COVID year messed that up with the road games. The results showed up in year four.” 

Now, the results need to remain for the city of El Paso to adopt the Miners in a consistent manner that eluded the UTEP football program for years. Sure, there are bright spots along the path, but rarely a consistent enough winner to attract big crowds on a regular basis. The 7-5 record posted by the Miners in 2021 was only the program’s fifth winning record in the past 23 seasons. The next step is to repeat the trick – something UTEP has only done once this century. 

“They’ve always cared because it is the only real game in town,” Dimel said about El Paso and UTEP. “But there has to be a product to deliver, and hopefully we continue to deliver a good product for them to gravitate towards.” 

Few places are as prideful as El Paso. The family-oriented city in far West Texas is unique in many ways. It’s the only major city in Texas in the Mountain Time Zone. There isn’t a major league sports franchise in town despite 2 million people in the area if you add Juarez, Mexico to the mix. It also has an iconic stadium in the Sun Bowl. And with programs such as UTSA and North Texas leaving, Conference USA after the 2022 season, there are hopes that the Miners can become a conference championship contender soon. 

“We’ve got to get the casual fan over the hump and get them to become stakeholders and investors and season tickets and donors,” Senter said. “Our goal is to push the reset button on all things UTEP athletics with this 915 campaign and the Sun Bowl sellout so that people leave there going ‘Man, they have a good football team, and the environment was electric.’”

The whole city will be watching when North Texas comes to town. Even Mayor Oscar Leeser is in on the excitement. He personally purchased 5,000 tickets to the opener and gave those to the police, fire, and sheriff’s departments, as well as to any city employee who wanted to attend. A city and its college football team are partners, and a successful football program can add to the value of its city. Ask Boise State or Cincinnati or even Orlando thanks to UCF. UTEP can be that for El Paso if the winning continues under Dimel. 

“It is important for unity. That’s been so important for this city,” Leeser said. “Our community getting behind UTEP and UTEP football is important. The sellout is big for the city, and for the university and the players.” 

With expectations comes pressure. And with success, programs can be become complacent. Dimel is guarded against those worries. He’s liked that a conference game starts the season because the urgency built a bigger intensity for preseason camp. But while the coaching staff and the players must worry about winning against North Texas – a team that beat UTEP in overtime last season – the rest of the UTEP faithful can soak in the success, at least for this week. 

“All the hard work of Dana Dimel and his staff building this program from the ground up is starting to pay off,” Senter said. “We’re becoming more attractive to viewers and media, and it is exciting to see them rewarded for their efforts.”

The only thing left is the football game. UTEP hosts North Texas on Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. Mountain Time to kick off the FBS season in Texas. The Miners are on a five-game losing streak against the Mean Green, including a two-point loss in 2020 and an overtime defeat last season. The sellout is cool and all, but Dimel’s mind is solely on North Texas. 

“North Texas is one of the top teams in our conference that we’ll play all year,” he said. “That’s in my mind. It’s going to be a good test for us. Beating them would be a big step for our program.” 

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