Sean Kugler Carries Underdog Label Once Again in 2017
Despite the fact that the 2017 UTEP football season is still more than three weeks away, some Miner fans have already painted a picture of doom and gloom for the upcoming campaign. The team lost star running back Aaron Jones to the NFL and the Miners will rely on El Pasoan Ryan Metz to lead the offense at quarterback. No matter what happens on the football field this season, do not expect head coach Sean Kugler's job to be in jeopardy any time soon.
Kugler signed a contract extension after the 2014 season when his Miners won seven games and played in the New Mexico Bowl. His new five-year deal expires August 31st 2020. If UTEP wanted to buy him out at any point, they would need to pay Kugler his annual base salary of $289,541 for the remaining years on his contract. There is little to no chance that UTEP could afford to do that, and the school's boosters like Kugler and support his direction for the football program. Let's take a closer look at his two biggest accomplishments since taking over the team from Mike Price in December 2012.
The first big change is academics. Kugler preached discipline with his team on and off the field, and he has made UTEP's Academic Progress Rate (APR) a priority since coming back to El Paso. In addition, he has stressed the fact that his players graduate with a degree. In fact, in the 2015-16 season, the Miners' 980 APR was second to Rice (984) among thee 12 Texas Division 1 football programs. That top APR score could allow UTEP to play in a bowl game even if they finish with only five wins.
One of the biggest complaints I used to hear on the radio from Miner fans is that their football team is lacking El Paso standouts. These fans used to say that if UTEP built their program with the best talent in the city, more people would come to watch them play. From the first day he arrived back at UTEP, Kugler preached that he would make local players a priority with his recruiting. He currently has 30 El Pasoans on his 2017 roster and another two players from Las Cruces. Many of those El Paso players are on the Miners' two-deep to begin the season. Despite the huge influx of local talent, fans have not lived up to their word and filled the Sun Bowl to support the UTEP program.
Unfortunately, Kugler's positive achievements with the Miners has not yet transformed his program into a consistent winner. He won just two games during his first season as head coach, but he took the Miners to the postseason with seven wins in year two. However, he won five games in year three and four games last season. In his four years as UTEP's head football coach, Kugler's record is 16-31. As his teams have lost games, the crowds at the Sun Bowl continue to decline. Here is UTEP's average attendance over the last four seasons:
2013: 28,375 (2-10)
2014: 28,377 (7-6)
2015: 23,212 (5-7)
2016: 23,001 (4-8)
Last season was a little misleading, since UTEP drew over 68,000 fans for their first two home games against NMSU and Army. If you average the final five games at the Sun Bowl, the Miners averaged only 18,598 per contest.
On paper, the 2017 football schedule looks brutal for UTEP. They open up at Oklahoma on national television, before their home opener against Rice on September 9th and Arizona on the 15th. Then they play road games against NMSU and Army in consecutive weeks. The Miners play three of their first five home games by October 7th and they finish C-USA play with three of their final four games on the road in November. It should not come as a surprise that most of the preseason magazines have picked the Miners to finish near the bottom of the standings in C-USA's west division. With a schedule like this, Kugler needs support from the community more than ever this season. Instead of dismissing the Miners before they take their first snap of the 2017 season, it would be great if the community would rally behind Kugler and his team and give UTEP the kind of home field advantage that they so desperately need.