Former UTEP Players Rave About Kugler: ‘He Taught [Us] How to Be Men’
On Wednesday, Steve Kaplowitz put out the bold statement that generated lots of interest on the show: Sean Kugler is the most underappreciated coach in UTEP history.
Fans were torn. Some believed the former Miner coach was underrated and agreed with Steve. Others scoffed at the idea, suggesting his win/loss record cannot be overlooked (18 wins in just over four seasons).
The story also generated passionate responses from Kuglers' former players. Notable stars like Aaron Jones and Nik Needham came to his support on social media. Other former Miners cited reasons like graduation rates, becoming better off the field and discipline as the pros for Kugler.
Today, I reached out to a number of former players to get their thoughts on Kugler's impact on them:
Aaron Jones, Running Back
When did you first realize that Kugler was completely different than other coaches?
When he came to my house for an official visit, he told my parents one thing: that we would graduate with a degree from UTEP. He didn't promise playing time or anything, just guaranteed I would get my degree. He cares for you off the field the same as he cares about you on the field. It's a reason he was coaching in the league before coming to UTEP and he's back in the league. That just tells you how good of a coach he is! I've had numerous coaches in the NFL come to me talking about how good of a coach he is!"
Alvin Jones, Linebacker
Why was Kugler so misunderstood among fans?
"Cause fans don’t care about anything but winning. But that’s life and you can’t blame them. He was doing more for the players. Building men to set them up for life. And he kept it real."
Logan Tuley-Tilman, Offensive Lineman
What about Kugler influenced you to become a coach after football?
"[Kugler] is such a good coach. The stuff he taught us in terms of the fundamentals are things I teach today [coaching the offensive line and tight ends at Texas high school powerhouse Duncanville]. The thing people need to understand is that if you weren't in those walls, you don't understand what kind of a coach he was.
I love him to death and the whole [UTEP] family. Beyond the personal relationship, he's in the top one percent of coaching. What he represented and the player he was—someone who played at the highest level, at the Super Bowl. What he represented, the coach he is... Now I try to embody what he says.
He helped me out with things in my professional career, both in the AAF and the XFL. He helped me get on the Memphis Express and make money as a professional football player. He called up Mike Singeltary for me. Long story short, I was playing in the Your Call Football league. I got the Memphis GM's number and Kugler vouched for me when they had an injury on the offensive line. I ended up getting the opportunity and playing on the offensive line for Johnny Manziel."
Warren Redix, Wide Receiver
How encouraging was it that Kugler not just recruited El Paso kids, but also gave them an opportunity to play?
"Coach Kugs is easily the most underappreciated coach in UTEP history. He doesn't get enough praise for his commitment to recruiting local and giving local players opportunities. I think he helped shift the notion that you can only recruit in east Texas and from Midland. He helped get more recruiting in El Paso and people playing attention to our talent.
He's one of the few coaches who gave me an opportunity and I'm forever grateful. He helped me get my degree too. That was something big in his tenure. He made sure that every player in that program was going to graduate and he was committed to that."
What is something that Kugler did for you all as a team that most on the outside will never see?
"I think Coach Kugler did a lot of great things. I have a lot of respect for him. I’m grateful he gave me a chance and kept me as a recruit and brought me on board. One thing separate from football was he cared about everyone’s education. He always said in team meetings that he wanted everyone to leave with a degree because that can last a lifetime and can open many doors once football is over. Football meant a lot to him but he also cared a lot about what we did in the classroom. I’m sure everyone talks about the football side but that’s always one thing outside of football that stood out to me."
How did Kugler develop such good relationships with players?
"You know that’s a question that could be answered in many ways. I don’t think there is only one correct answer. One thing that immediately connected me with Kugs was just how brutally honest he was with not just you as a player but also with your family. Still remember he never promised recruits playing time, to start as a freshman, etc.
But he would promise two things, you’re going to learn to become a man and earn your degree in his program, and he did exactly that. As a young kid coming into that program it could be a shock, but as time passed and you got older, you began to realize what this man was about. You truly felt in your heart and soul that man cared for each one of his players and wanted nothing but success for his guys. When everything was hitting the fan he was the one backing us up even if we didn’t deserve it. He would always say he didn't care about what anyone on the outside thinks—it’s us and him back-to-back swinging for the fences. And that’s how it is till this damn day man. He did so much for me and countless other players. I would do anything for that man. It’s rare when you can look at someone and know they genuinely love and want the best for you. That was Kugs. He developed so much respect from his players its crazy. I’d run through a brick wall for him any day, no questions asked."
Augie Touris, Tight End
How close do you think this team was to finding success?
"It’s scary to say, but VERY close. To go back to what I said, I feel a bowl game in 2015 would’ve changed a lot. Aaron [Jones] getting hurt was unfortunate, it’s part of the game. But back to back bowls would’ve changed a lot going into 2016. A few crazy moments—losing by 4 to Texas Tech, the LA Tech game in 2015, as well as the amazing NMSU one. Also, I think if we’d beaten Army in 2017 the season may have been saved. But water under the bridge, there were forces within the school that did not want to see him succeed.
The average fan looks at wins and losses, when in reality being a college football coach is much more than that. When Kugler took over, we were on the edge of losing scholarships because of how bad the team GPA and APR was. It would have been easy to bring in tons of JUCO players and win fast while sacrificing teams in the future. Kugler took a long term approach and genuinely fixed the team for years to come. It was also a stroke of bad luck. If you remember, we were a game away from back-to-back bowls in 2015 and I think that had a snowball effect. You’d be hard-pressed to find a former player (who didn’t quit or was kicked off) during his tenure that didn’t have the utmost respect.
I vividly remember the day he stepped down and it’s still painful, Coach was shaking with emotion and the hurt was evident. He absolutely LOVED the program and I firmly believe he would have stayed with the school for life.
Like I said, fans just see wins and losses, which is b.s. and disingenuous. They weren’t there to see how badly that man wanted us to succeed, far beyond the field. They weren’t there to see the passion and pain he felt through the ups and downs, the euphoria when we achieved goals for ourselves and the hurt he felt when we made mistakes. He held us accountable and that’s not easy to do. The conviction he had could not be faked or feigned. He was a coach who loved every one of us and truly wanted the best. And to do that, he pushed us and created men from us, not just guys who performed on Saturdays.
As a disclaimer, he is a very good Coach as well. Firmly believe in everything he did, it was some bad luck as I mentioned before that spiraled us."
Derron Gatewood, Center
What did coach Kugler mean to you?
“Coach Kugler believed in us through all of our hardships and believed in molding us into great men. I was blessed to have Coach Kugs during my time at UTEP. Thank you for everything Coach.”
Kavika Johnson, Wide Receiver
What kind of an impact did Kugler have on your life?
"Coach Kugs was really a strong figure in my life. He taught me and a lot of us how to be men in the real world. He did promise us one thing and that was we would get our degree. And well I got mine so he did keep his promise. He gave me a shot as freshman and had full faith in me. Coach Kugs did a lot for me, so no matter what people say I got the utmost respect. He always kept it real."
Justin Rogers, Defensive Back
Explain to me your recruiting process with coach Kugler.
"He was super family-oriented with people. Coach Kugs did a good job with parents. If you think about it, [parents] are giving their kids away to another man. I was a late recruit during the process. I wasn't on anyone's radar from my junior year to senior year in high school. Then when my senior year came around, I started getting looks. UTEP was my only scholarship offer at the time.
Kugs was known for getting recruits in and committed by the time they left their visit. But he wasn't into the recruitment shenanigans. He would ask you straight up if you wanted to come here or not. He offered me and I committed two weeks after. It was important for my mom, a single mother, that [Kugler] talked about how he wanted to take the responsibility to get my degree and become a better man.
UTEP is a tough place to coach at. Kugler couldn't grab some of the guys he obviously wanted. But it would be tough for any coach. It's a tough place to recruit to. Not a lot of money like other schools. It really put him in a bad spot but people need to realize football isn't easy.
Kalaii Griffin II, Linebacker
How much of an impact did Kugler make in your life—both on and off the field?
"My personal experience with coach Kugler is a lot different from others. When I came into the program, I was a little bit older, came from JUCO and wasn't necessarily molded as an 18 year old kid to being 22. I ended up showing up at 22. I came in with this slightly cocky attitude that was quickly checked at the door. It took me a while getting acclimated to not only being a Division I football player but being a Division I football player playing for Kugler. But if it wasn't for him through our ups and downs, I wouldn't have been able to be as disciplined and carry it over to the Dimel era when it finally clicked with me play at the Division I level and how to present myself as a leader at the Division I level.
With that being said, I remember times where I think about giving up or something being too hard or just having an attitude with a coach, not only am I thinking about my family and those who I am doing this for but more so I think about the times with coach Kugler where I ask 'would this fly with coach Kugler?' The answer is no. Nothing flew with him. It was his way or literally the highway—or a plane ticket. He taught me the discipline aspect of things and I definitely truly appreciate him for sure in physical football 100 percent."
Eddie Sinegal, Wide Receiver
What was it about Kugler that made him so special to you?
"I thought he was a great coach, a player's coach in my opinion. He always held us accountable and focused on not just the development of football players but also as men. He was always honest and put what he thought the best players on the field and also recruited local. He started Alvin and Aaron, Warren, [Ryan] Metz, Cole Freytag, Kavika and me. That’s just me thinking of the top of my head. He didn’t care where we were from, he knew we could play. I had a great relationship with him and his office was also open to talking about anything.
Jean-Andre Moore, Walk-on Receiver
Why do you think that fans ultimately have such negative comments toward Kugler's tenure at UTEP?
"Because Kugler is the face of the franchise. The buck stops with him. And fans are quick to find the reason something wrong anywhere because if makes them sound like an expert. The simplest answer is that it was solely Kugler's fault for the lack of success. So it turns into this echo chamber of him being the sole issue. But I really feel if there were fewer cooks in the kitchen, he might've had more success. There was buy-in from the players, but with such discrepancy between coaching staff, it's hard to find success in inconsistency.
But Kugler was a great coach and person himself. I've played under national championship coaches before and there's something different in them, and Kugler has IT. I truly believe if put in a system and established coaching staff, like if he got promoted in the NFL, hired in house, he would have great success.
Kugler knew every player's name, what they do, and from a walk-on's perspective to feel like your head coach cares about you as a person, that's special, man. I ALWAYS said that man deserved more wins under his belt. But there's a reason he still had an NFL team waiting for him leaving UTEP... HE'S A GREAT COACH.
And [the coaching staff] wasn't on the same page about things. Play calls, run-pass emphasis, overall offensive ideals. I felt [Brent] Pease was a good offensive mind but between him, [Brian] Natkin and Kugler, it seemed like they often didn't have the same vision in mind, so it made it hard for players to have the same vision as well. Too many cooks. I feel like I vaguely remember Kugler out of frustration just letting Pease take over things in drills because he just didn't want to argue in front of players."