Wednesday’s event at Four Hills Country Club was not rookie night at an NFL training camp, so neither Matt Wells nor Sean Kugler was asked to stand on a chair and sing his college alma mater’s fight song.
Chances are, though, they could have.
Wells and Kugler were in Albuquerque to be formally introduced as coaches of the teams that will meet Dec. 20 in the ninth annual Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Kugler coaches the UTEP Miners (7-5), Wells the Utah State Aggies (9-4).
Both are finishing their second year as the head coach at their respective schools. And, in a relatively rare occurrence, the New Mexico Bowl is bringing together two men who are coaching at their alma maters.
Wells is a 1996 Utah State graduate, Kugler a 1989 UTEP grad.
According to New Mexico Bowl executive director Jeff Siembieda, Wells and Kugler are two of only 11 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches who are working at their alma maters.
It’s the second such pairing in New Mexico Bowl history. In 2007, New Mexico graduate Rocky Long coached the Lobos to a 23-0 victory over Nevada, coached by Wolf Pack grad Chris Ault.
There’s something special, Kugler and Wells said, about coming back to coach the school for which you played.
“It’s pretty humbling to be able to lead your alma mater, to be the head coach at your alma mater,” Wells said. “It means a lot to me, the success of the program.
“I bleed Aggie blue.”
Kugler didn’t say he bleeds Miner orange, but the thought was there.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said, “to have an opportunity at the place that you played. … Sometimes when you’re talking to players about different things, you can relate to them because you sat in the same chairs, you went to the same classes, played on the same field, ate the same food.
“It makes it more meaningful when you win or lose a game because you really wear that on your sleeve, it being your alma mater.”
BACK IN ‘BURQUE: Wells is a former New Mexico assistant, having worked for Long in 2007-08 and for Mike Locksley in 2010. He still owns a house here, and his son Wyatt, 6, the youngest of his three children, was born at University Hospital.
Working for Long at UNM, Wells said, helped shape the mindset that he brings to his work at Utah State.
“Rocky Long had a big influence on me, to see how a program was built on toughness,” he said. “If anybody epitomizes toughness in a head coach it’s Rocky Long.”
Wells said Long also taught him the value of a strong walk-on program. Three of Utah State’s six first-team, All-Mountain West Conference selections – linebacker Zach Vigil, defensive lineman B.J. Larsen and safety Frankie Sutera – began their careers as walk-ons.
Wells said he doesn’t believe his familiarity with the territory gives the Aggies any kind of advantage.
“The fact that I was here for three years as an assistant means absolutely nothing,” he said, “because this game’s about the players.”
RISING ABOVE: Few, if anyone, would have projected UTEP to qualify for a bowl game after the Miners suffered consecutive blowouts on the road at Kansas State (58-28 on Sept. 27) and at Louisiana Tech (55-3 on Oct. 4).
The loss to Louisiana Tech was particularly disturbing because it was UTEP’s Conference USA opener. After having gone 2-10 in Kugler’s first season, the Miners at that point were 4-13 during his tenure and were staring at the possibility of a ninth straight losing season.
“It was our first conference game, and (Louisiana Tech) handed it to us,” Kugler said. “We could have gone a lot of different directions. Sometimes that’s when a team fractures and splits apart.
“In fact, they did quite the opposite. They came together and decided enough was enough.”
The Miners answered with a three-game win streak and won five of their last seven.
“I really attribute that to our senior leadership,” Kugler said. “Those guys did an outstanding job. They came ready to work on Tuesday (after the Louisiana Tech loss), and they’ve been great ever since.”
THE MATCHUP: Wells and Kugler agreed the game shapes up as a classic contest between a power running team (UTEP) and a strong rushing defense (Utah State).
“Something’s got to give,” Wells said. “They’re one of the top 30 teams in the country in running the football, and I think we’re one of the best in the Mountain West and the country in stopping the run. So, that will be strength on strength.”
Kugler called Utah State’s defense the best the Miners will have faced, but said: “We’re gonna do what we do. We do it against every opponent that we face.
“That’s our MO when we take the football field. I think it will be a very physical game.”
NEVER TELL THEM THE ODDS: The oddsmakers list Utah State as an early 10- to 10½-point favorite.
The betting favorite has won four of the previous eight New Mexico Bowls.