UTEP, for all intents and purposes, has always been wide regarded by it’s fans as a basketball school. A bench mark in the Civil Rights movement, helping to change the narrative of American Civic culture and the wide press brought on from those accolades, helped to usher UTEP Miners basketball from dusty cowtown pickup ball, to the elite team, to the elite mid major of the 1970’s through to the 1990’s with it’s legendary coach, Don Haskins. During “The Bear’s” time in El Paso, he was the pinnacle of success, so much so that he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. However, that standard has set for a seemingly lose lose situation for UTEP’s current play caller, Tim Floyd.
A Haskins disciple, Floyd took over the reigns as UTEP’s Head Basketball coach after Tony Barbee left to try to find success at Auburn. This was an out of the norm hire for UTEP and one that was quite controversial. Tim Floyd resigned from USC after there were infractions held against him where he knew of money being given to a “runner” in hopes to get OJ Mayo to play for USC. The sum total was $1,000.
When Floyd returned to UTEP, there was immediate backlash from those stating that he did not reflect the type of character the head coach of UTEP Basketball should have. Forgotten was the scandal of Jason Rabedeaux, the way Billy Gilespy left the program high and dry, and of course the beloved Haskins arrest for DWI.
Then there is the UTEP Football Team. El Paso’s beloved Miners, who have been long under achieving, yet seeing significant progress at the same time under head coach Sean Kugler. The Miners haven’t won a bowl game since the same time they won the NCAA Tournament, 51 years ago.
The struggling program has had some stars come through, Aaron Jones, Thomas Howard, Jameill Showers and Quintin Demps, to name a few. Yet it seems like when they get to that hump, they just cannot get over it. A string of injuries, poor play, a missed field goal, all these things happen to UTEP and they are left on the outside looking in when Bowl Season comes knocking.
UTEP has had an issue keeping players, they transfer, leave the program all together or in the case of one basketball player who is 7’1″, disappeared off the face of the earth.
So I looked into these things, tried to find what it is that allows teams of smaller schools to have so much success. How are these school that are not as historically relevant, kicking UTEP’s ass on a regular basis?
NMSU, right up the street from UTEP, had an issue with attendance, what did they do? The AD asked the city of Las Cruces how he could inspire them to come to games. Bold move, but on the right track.
SMU, a school struck by the Death Penalty in College Football for their roll in violating NCAA Sanctions, had 2 decades of nothing, Three different coaches manned the helm for the ‘Stangs, and yet, they have been able to turn around and comeback and like the phoenix, rise from their ashes, and become a contender in not only CFB, but NCAA MBB as well.
Some might say, “Well SMU is a big school in a big city.” Ok, I’ll give you that one. So lets look at our own Conference USA.
UTEP Athletic Director Bob Still loves to brag about UTEP’s attendance being much larger than that of other cities in C-USA. This is correct, but the Sun Bowl is a HUGE Stadium, and when it is 30-35% full, there is no good look of it. With a city the size of El Paso, the 4th largest city in C-USA, and the 2nd largest stadium in C-USA, UTEP is the 4th emptiest stadium in the conference by percentage. These numbers for UTEP of course, are the announced numbers, and tends to inflate the actual crowd size, something those who attended games saw was not a true announcement.
When looking at the schools that lead the pack in attendance, they are some of the younger schools not only in C-USA, but in terms of University and football team age. The Schools with smaller attendance, like FIU and Rice compete in larger cities than UTEP against schools like Houston, and The U, Miami.
UTEP’s struggling attendance is a mixture of poisons that have combine to combust on UTEP, it’s fans, programs and athletes. No one wants to play in front of an empty arena and El Paso doesn’t help themselves when they do not show up to games. All these things matter to student athletes who are not only interested in getting an education and playing their sport, but showcasing their talents in front of fans in attendance and watching on TV.
UAB has started to bounce back attendance wise, and for those who don’t know why this is important, the school dropped it’s football program a few years back, and in the process alienated their fans. Those same fans have come back to the program, and support it. The issue UTEP has is no fan support. Even the El Paso Chihuahuas who won the PCL Championship in 2016, struggled with attendance in their post season.
El Paso, unfortunately is a town of front runner fans, a trend you do not see in some of the other cities not only in C-USA, but all of the NCAA cities even in the most remote of locations. Perhaps it’s only a recipe a winning program can cook, maybe it’s the lack of promotion from UTEP’s athletics coordinators, or maybe its the old arena that looks ancient when compared to other stadiums in the NCAA.
Perhaps UTEP needs a gimmick, but how soon will that become boring to El Pasoans who complain about the lack of events in El Paso, but then do not attend when there is a world class event, see Jenifer Han fights in El Paso. The excuse of El Paso being a “Border Town” is getting old. Especially when the cost of living caters to everyone in the city. Compared to the rest of the cities in C-USA, El Paso is not only the most affordable, but is also one of the higher income per households, coming in 5th in all the C-USA cities, yet still flounders around the bottom when it comes to attendance.
Personally, I believe UTEP should begin renovations of not only the Haskins Center, but the Sun Bowl as well. These venues are old, look old, feel old and unwelcoming, especially when compared to the new Southwest University Park. The promotions staff needs to take a page from the Chihuahuas and start experimenting with foods, give aways and fan appreciation acts as well. Embrace the programs that have had great successes like the UTEP Track and Field squad, Women’s Basketball and Cheer Teams, and then expand their Women’s Scholarships to include a separate indoor and out door track team, swimming and diving team, and even equestrian squads like our “rival” to the north has, and embrace that rivalry. These expansions of Women’s Scholarships will not only bring more revenue to UTEP, but more scholarships on the men’s side to once again play baseball at UTEP. Embrace the Hockey team by incorporating a Women’s Hockey team, and allowing the men’s team to move from “club” level to actual scholarship players.
UTEP was once the bench mark of success in El Paso, but as of recent times they’ve become the skid mark of mediocrity… if even that. This falls directly on their lack of ingenuity and their lack of understanding the times that have changed.
What do you think UTEP can do to improve their attendance? How has the current administration turned you onto or off of UTEP Athletics?