Sean Kugler Is the Most Underappreciated Coach in UTEP History
As UTEP prepares for the 2020 college football campaign, fans hope that year three of the Dana Dimel era will produce more wins than the first two seasons. He took over a program that many felt had fallen to rock bottom, and designed a four to five year rebuild to return the Miners to respectability. Prior to Dimel arriving in El Paso, Sean Kugler had spent the previous four-plus seasons as head coach of the Miners. The majority of UTEP fans believed then and now that the Kugler era was a colossal failure, but if you look closely at his body of work, it was much more successful than anyone ever gave him credit for.
For years, I publicly lobbied on 600 ESPN El Paso for then Director of Athletics Bob Stull to hire his former offensive lineman to take over the UTEP football program from Mike Price. After finishing his playing career for UTEP in the late 80s, Kugler had become a successful offensive line coach in college and later the NFL. Charlie Bailey gave him his start when he was hired in 1994 as UTEP's tight ends coach, a year after returning to his alma matter as a graduate assistant. Once Price announced that he would retire following his ninth season as head coach of the Miners and Kugler was named his replacement in December of 2012, I could not have been happier. Coach Price had made UTEP football relevant again, and his early success in El Paso brought the program national attention and even a spot in the Top 25. However, like every other head coach since Bobby Dobbs, Price found it difficult to replicate his first two seasons with the Miners. His teams were always competitive and they put up a ton of points and yards, but his defensive units could never match the offensive production and UTEP always seemed to hover around four or five wins each season.
When Sean Kugler returned to El Paso, it marked the first time a former UTEP player and assistant coach was named head coach of the Miners. Kugler was a no-nonsense leader, who preached hard work, discipline, and a strong education in the classroom. He needed his first season to get rid of players from the Price regime who did not buy into his philosophy. Although Kugler won just two games in his first season back, his 2013 recruiting class paved the way for years to come. Aaron and Alvin Jones, Nick Usher, Derek Elmendorff, Will Hernandez, Devin Cockrell, Jameel Erving, Ryan Metz, Lawrence Montegut, Tyler Batson, Nick Gathrite, and Darren Laufasa were all signees from his inaugural class. Although some of those players were originally recruited by Price, Alvin Jones and Hernandez were among that class that Kugler was responsible for bringing into the program. All 12 of these players had a chance to contribute in a big way to the Miners.
By the time Kugler began his second season as head coach in 2014, he knew that the Miners would be much improved. As a freshman, Jones had led the team with 811 yards and four touchdowns and he combined a terrific 1-2 punch with Nathan Jeffery. Jameill Showers was entering his senior season firmly entrenched as UTEP's starting quarterback. Cockrell led the team in tackles as a true freshman while Erving and Usher had also emerged as valuable contributors on defense. The Miners finished the regular season with a 7-5 record and Jones rushed for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. Strangely enough, home attendance declined each game, despite the team winning five of six at the Sun Bowl. UTEP met Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl, but the Aggies shut down Jones and the Miners offense, winning 21-6 in Albuquerque. Despite the loss, there was plenty of optimism for Kugler and his team.
If you look back at 2015, it was one of the strangest seasons that I have ever covered in all my years working in the El Paso sports media. Despite breaking a 91-yard touchdown run against Texas Tech, Jones tore a ligament in his left ankle late in the first half against the Red Raiders, and his season was over after not even playing in two games. Despite not having their best player for most if the season and dealing with an enormous amount of injuries that left him going to fourth string on his depth chart at some positions, UTEP somehow finished with five wins and they were a missed field goal away from winning six and going back to a bowl game. The Miners defense kept them in almost every conference contest, despite the offense struggling to put up points without Jones. Aaron's twin brother Alvin Jr. was quickly becoming one of the top stars on defense. What is even more amazing about that season is that there was an incident early in the non-conference campaign that left strained relationships within his coaching staff. Instead of making changes to the staff, Kugler kept his team intact and figured out a way to keep the distractions from leaking into the local media and affecting his team's play on the field. I commend him for this, and consider 2015 to be his best season as head coach of the Miners, given all the adversity that he endured.
Despite new offensive coordinator Brent Pease and defensive coordinator Tom Mason and a renewed sense of optimism heading into 2016, UTEP never lived up to the expectations. Aaron Jones was terrific, combining for 2,006 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns (he also threw a touchdown pass). Jones broke the school record for most career rushing yards and touchdowns as a redshirt junior while twin brother Alvin led the team in tackles. Metz played well at quarterback and local products like Cole Freytag, Eddie Sinegal, and Kavika Johnson (Las Cruces) all contributed. Jones declared for the NFL Draft and his departure was a major blow to the Miners offense. UTEP had nobody else on the roster that could run like Jones, despite Josh Fields being billed as the next great El Paso running back.
The Miners began 2017 with five straight losses, including road defeats to Oklahoma, New Mexico State, and Army. Things were not right with the team, but nobody expected the news following the 35-21 loss to Black Knights. Kugler had resigned as head coach of the team, leaving Stull to quickly hire his replacement. "After meeting with coach [Bob] Stull and discussing my future and the future of this program, we mutually agreed the best thing is for me to step down as the head coach," Kugler said in the official press release. "My love for UTEP is in my heart forever, and my love for all the players that I have coached here is even stronger. We have accomplished many things together—a bowl appearance in 2014, a perfect APR score, the highest GPA in team history and countless players getting their degrees. I am so proud of my players and their behavior off the field representing El Paso as great ambassadors in community service."
Instead of promoting Brian Natkin (offensive coordinator) or Mason, Stull asked Mike Price to come out of retirement for the remaining seven games of the 2017 season. That decision proved disastrous, as the Miners went winless for the first time since 1973. Price was put into an impossible position and he could not stop the sinking ship from reaching the bottom of the ocean floor. As for Kugler, it is still a mystery if he asked his former coach and Athletic Director to step down as head coach. Stull has said repeatedly that Kugler had enough and wanted out, but others say that the man who always preached fight, determination, and to never give up would not have abandoned his position just five games into the season. Regardless, the team did not resemble the same group that had won nine games over the previous two seasons.
Most UTEP fans cringe when they look back at the Sean Kugler era. However, the former offensive lineman turned head coach did things that few people acknowledge. He recruited local players more than any other UTEP coach, and gave dozens of them an opportunity to wear the Miners orange and blue over his four plus seasons. For years, callers to 600 ESPN El Paso have wondered why UTEP did not recruit more local standouts, and argued that it would increase attendance. Kugler is a great example of how that strategy did not work. He also preached hard work, especially in the classroom where he had a terrific graduation rate. Although his teams lacked the offensive creativity of other coaches, his Miners were built to run the football down the throat of an opposing defense. Jones was the perfect example of this, and he continues to do that now in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers. Kugler also had an eye for NFL talent and seven of his former players (Jones, Will Hernandez, Nik Needham, Roy Robertson Harris, Eric Tomlinmson, Nick Usher, and Cedric Lang) are all currently on NFL teams.
Since he parted ways with UTEP, Kugler returned to the NFL, first as an offensive line coach with the Denver Broncos and then taking the same position with the Arizona Cardinals. In an article last week on SI.com, Cardinals offensive lineman Mason Cole credited his coach with developing his game at the NFL level. "I always respect (Kugler)," Cole told SI.com. "He's never afraid to have a conversation with you, whether it be good or bad. I think the big thing with him is, he's always going to push us to work."
So why did so many just not warm up to Kugs? Maybe it is because he looked intimidating like professional wrestlers Bill Goldberg or Stone Cold Steve Austin. Once you get to know Kugler, you quickly realize that he is personable and has a terrific sense of humor. Others will tell you his offense was too run oriented and predictable. Mike Price's offense was the polar opposite of Kugler, yet fans grew tired of the former college coach of the year when he failed to deliver enough wins. One final criticism was that Kugler recruited too many El Paso players. Although UTEP's football roster eventually grew to about 32% local talent, plenty of El Pasoans like the Jones brothers, Metz, Freytag, Elmendorff, Greg Long, Bobby DeHaro, Sinegal, Fields, and Warren Redix have had productive careers as Miners. Sean Kugler deserved much better than what he received during his days in El Paso, and the biggest tragedy is that he is a Miner alum and had true devotions to restoring the football program to greatness. I hope that one day UTEP and Kugler can patch things up and he returns to El Paso to receive the kind of welcome that he deserves.