When I heard the news on Sunday afternoon that Sean Kugler had stepped down as head football coach at UTEP, I was surprised. Despite their 0-5 start, I did not expect him to walk away from his team less than halfway through the season. If there is one thing about Coach Kugler that I have known over the last 22 years, it’s that he’s not the kind of person to leave a job before it is finished. He has always been loyal to his team and his coaching staff and would want to be there for them every step of the way.
He did say during his second signing class that if the Miner football program had not improved in three years, he would step down from his job. Since he won seven games in 2014, Kugler won just nine times over the last two and a half seasons. Fan attendance has dwindled over that time, and UTEP did not want to wait until after the season to make a coaching change.
In his four plus years as head coach, Kugler left a big mark on this program off the field. He’s brought discipline to the Miners, and very few players either transferred or got into trouble during his tenure. He also recruited the El Paso area more than any previous UTEP head coach, but the local roster did nothing to improve fan support at the Sun Bowl. Finally, his players excelled in the classroom, and their Academic Progress Rate (APR) score was the highest it has ever been. Despite all of those positive achievements, it all comes down to winning games, and UTEP decided that it was time for a change in leadership.
There were plenty of rumors as to who would take over the Miners football program for the remainder of the season. The most logical replacements were assistant coaches Brian Natkin, Tom Mason and Spencer Leftwich. Natkin took over the play calling responsibilities from Brent Pease when Kugler let go of his offensive coordinator a few weeks ago. Mason, the team’s defensive coordinator, had been interim head coach on two prior occasions with Boise State and SMU. Leftwich was one of Kugler’s first hires and has been an assistant head coach for the Miners along with offensive line coach.
UTEP Director of Athletics Bob Stull went in a different direction and talked Mike Price into coming out of retirement to coach the Miners for their last seven games. Although he has not been on the UTEP sideline as head coach since the 2012 season, Price agreed to serve as interim coach for the rest of the season.
“I was surprised and flattered by Bob’s call and appreciate the opportunity to help this program one more time,” Price said in a press release. “I am not interviewing for the future job, and I’m not going to be the future head coach. I’m going to manage the program and provide leadership for the rest of the year.”
It will be interesting to see what kind of effect Price can have both inside the locker room and at the Sun Bowl. His return will likely bring increased attendance for the final three home games. However, UTEP is still in search of their first win and they face an uphill battle to try and salvage what has been an otherwise disappointing college football season in El Paso.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” weekday afternoons 4-7 p.m. on 600 ESPN El Paso. Over the last 17 years, he has also worked for UTEP and NMSU as a play-by-play broadcaster, for UTEP telecasts on Time Warner Cable and for KDBC-TV and KTSM-TV as a sports anchor/reporter. You can contact Steve by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.