Fresh out of the NFL, Sean Kugler is a coach like none other the Miners have seen, and the hope in West Texas is that he will start a new tradition of winning seasons at UTEP.
He succeeds Mike Price, who was always popular in El Paso despite the Miners’ 48-61 record during his nine-year tenure as head football coach.
Kugler, who turned 47 on Friday, started his college football career at UTEP in 1984 under then-head coach Bob Stull, now UTEP’s athletic director, and position coach Andy Reid, who went on to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kugler almost made it to the NFL after leaving UTEP. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed him in 1989 but released him when he suffered a concussion at training camp. They would meet up again, however.
After a year with the World League’s Sacramento Surge, Kugler headed into coaching, starting as a graduate assistant coach for two Florida high schools before making it back to UTEP and the coaching staff in 1993.
He was the Miners’ offensive line coach when he left UTEP in 2000 to join the Detroit Lions coaching staff. Kugler returned to the college ranks to become the assistant head coach at Boise State in 2006 – the year Boise was the only college team that went undefeated.
Then it was back to the pros as assistant offensive line coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2007 and to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010. They and Kugler went to the Super Bowl that year.
With Price on his way out last December, Kugler accepted the position of head football coach at UTEP in what might have been a surprise to everyone but Kugler. He stayed with the Steelers until the end of their season before coming to El Paso.
“The challenge to run a program, especially when it’s your alma mater, is one that was too hard to pass up,” he said.
His two sons, Robert and Patrick, seemed destined to make their mark in football, as well.
Both played for high school teams that won two state championships each in Pennsylvania and New York. Robert went on to play at Purdue University and Patrick starts this year on the offensive line at the University of Michigan.
The UTEP season opens with two big rivalries, starting Sept. 7 at the Sun Bowl against the University of New Mexico Lobos and the following week against New Mexico State’s Aggies in Las Cruces.
The biggest test of the Miners’ season comes Nov. 2 when UTEP meets nationally ranked Texas A&M. The Aggies have quarterback Johnny Manziel, who became the first freshman in history to win the college football’s top prize, the Heisman Trophy, last year.
However Manziel’s eligibility is suddenly up in the air, which could set the stage for high irony because the Aggies’ back-up quarterback last season, Jameill Showers, is now playing for UTEP. A high school star, Showers transferred to UTEP rather than ride the bench in Manziel’s shadow.
Before heading to training camp in Alpine last week, Kugler sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about the UTEP quarterback question, building the team that will face A&M and the importance of character to this new head coach.
It’s worth noting that during the interview, Kugler tackled 24 questions in just 16 minutes, which may be the fastest in the 18-year history of El Paso Inc.’s long-form interviews. He didn’t seem hurried, however, just focused and fast.
Q: By the time people read this, you and the team will be at training camp at Sul Ross University in Alpine. How does the team look in terms of returning players?
We’ve got some returning players, but there’s going to be a lot of open competition at camp. What we’re trying to do is create competition, so there’s a lot of open jobs right now, and who’s going to take those jobs remains to be seen. I’m excited about camp.
Q: Is that something new in terms of the number of open positions at this point in the pre-season?
Well, any time you come new into a program, you always try to find the right guys at the right positions. Usually, every football team goes into training camp with those types of questions and position battles.
Q: Always the question with the Miners: How’s the defense looking?
I know they’re going to work hard. We don’t view it as one side of the ball. We view it as offense, defense, special teams and collectively as a team. We’re looking to improve in all areas.
Q: Among the most interesting recruits are the Jones brothers, twins Aaron and Alvin, from Burges High. You don’t often see twins on the same team, but it could be exciting.
They’re both very talented young men with strong character. They’re both excellent students, excellent high school football players. We will see how they adapt to the college life, but I’ve got a feeling they’re going to be special players for us.
Q: Any chance of them starting in their first year?
That’s up to them.
Q: This year’s recruiting class includes four El Pasoans, the Jones brothers, Derek Elmendorff from Franklin High and Ryan Metz, the quarterback from Andress. Four out of 18 seems high. Are you going to be looking harder at El Paso players than previous coaches?
Well, we’re making a commitment to recruit the best players in El Paso. We felt we got the best four players in El Paso this year, and we’ll always try to target and attain the best players every year. So that’s where our focus for our recruiting is going to be.
Q: Is looking at El Paso from a recruiting standpoint like that something new?
Not necessarily, because I remember when I coached here and played here, several of our greatest players were from El Paso, and it seems like whenever there’s been success on the field, El Pasoans were always a big part of that.
Q: You’ve got some great new quarterback prospects, Jameill Showers, a transfer from Texas A&M, Ryan Metz from Andress and Mack Leftwich from Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania Player of the Year and son of UTEP assistant head coach Spencer Leftwich. In April, you talked about Blair Sullivan being the starter. Then you got Showers. Have you decided who’s your starter?
Blair ended up spring ball as our No. 1 quarterback, and Jameill’s going to be right in the competition. So, again, everybody’s going to have to compete for their jobs. There’s no exceptions. But, we’re excited about the depth and competition at that spot.
Q: You’ve brought in some new coaches. Who are they?
Spencer Leftwich is our assistant head coach/offensive line coach. Patrick Higgins is our offensive coordinator. Cornell Jackson is our running backs coach. Todd Whitten is our receivers coach. Brian Natkin was on the previous staff but I’ve coached Brian before and have a close relationship with him.
Defensively, Scott Stoker is our defensive coordinator. Andrew Browning is our defensive line coach. Gabe Franklin is our secondary’s coach. I’ve retained Robert Rodriguez from the previous staff to coach the nickel safeties.
Q: How many are new?
All but three: Gabe Franklin, Robert Rodriguez and Brian Natkin.
Q: You’re playing Texas A&M at College Station in November with four conference games left that month. That could be an opportunity to really step it up a level, but it’s also a good place for mid-season injuries. Your thoughts on that game?
Well, we’d better be able to step up a level because Texas A&M will be one of the top teams in college football this year, and they have their returning Heisman Trophy winner. So, they’ll be an extreme challenge, but one we’ll be up to it.
Q: What was it that drew you back to El Paso? Maybe that 1988 season under head coach Bob Stull when UTEP won 10 games and went to the Independence Bowl?
El Paso’s kind of a second home to me. I played here. I coached here for eight years. This will be my 15th year here. I enjoy El Paso and the people. The challenge to run a program, especially when it’s your alma mater, is one that was too hard to pass up.
Q: You hadn’t seen the campus for many years when you came back. What do you think of all the changes?
It’s changed quite a bit, not only the campus but the area around it. Dr. Natalicio’s done an unbelievable job with the growth of the university.
Q: Has El Paso gotten too big?
It’s getting bigger. There’s a lot more traffic than when I was here last. It’s definitely noticeable.
Q: What part of town do you live in?
Q: Coach Mike Price was great at building support for the football program, even though he didn’t have the winning seasons everyone hoped for. How do you feel about following him?
I think coach Price was a wonderful coach. I was one of his biggest fans from afar when he was coaching here. But, we’re going to do things our own way. We have a plan in place, and we’re going to try to adhere to that.
Q: Can you talk about that?
We’re going to try to be focused and disciplined on and off the field. We’re going to hold our players to a high standard of accountability on and off the field, and we’re hoping that translates into wins.
Q: Coaches always talk about character, but this sounds more important for you than we might find at some football programs.
I don’t think you win without character. To have guys that you rely on in the fourth quarter, you have to have guys with strong character and strong work ethic. Those are the type of players that we’re going to try to recruit and bring here to El Paso.
Q: Last season, there were some big games the Miners stayed in only to lose because of mistakes that might not have happened if the team had been better disciplined. How tough are you going to be about that?
We’re going to try to be fundamentally sound and disciplined on a daily basis. But as far as last year, I’m not looking back. All my arrows are pointing forward.
Q: What about off the field? ‘Football player in trouble’ is not a surprise headline. What is your policy going to be about that kind of thing?
Well, there are already 18 young men that are not a part of our program that were here in the spring. So, we’re going to have a very strong stand on discipline. Players get into trouble on the field, off the field, in the classroom, they’ll all be subject to discipline and it’ll be fair.
Q: What does that mean when you lose players like that, 18 players since spring? These were scholarship players?
Some were and some were not. All it means is they didn’t adhere to what we’re trying to get done.
Q: Can you be any more specific? Are you talking about academics or off the field problems?
A combination of things – things that we don’t want in our program.
Q: Recently, senior defensive back Richard Spencer was arrested on an assault charge. What is his status?
He will be disciplined accordingly and, again, we’re trying to get all the information on that situation and all that information has not been obtained. Once we have it, we will make a decision.
Q: Why did you switch from Socorro to Sul Ross in Alpine for training camp?
Really, it had nothing to do with Socorro. I actually enjoy going to Socorro. I went there when I was an assistant coach. It was a great set up. It just had to do with timing because we don’t have a game our first week. It’s a bye week, and because their school starts at a time when we would only have five days of training camp. That wasn’t feasible for what we were trying to get done.
We can be there the entire time at Sul Ross and it doesn’t conflict.
Q: Aren’t there advantages to being away like that, out of El Paso and away from the distractions?
Yeah, a lot of advantages. Team bonding and unity. Cohesion. Less distractions. That’s the main reason for going away to camp. We like it a lot.
Q: You’ve coached professional players who make a lot of money and college players who play for their scholarships and a place to sleep at night. What’s the difference when it comes to motivating them?
I think all players want to be pushed and worked hard and disciplined. As far as motivating them, there’s not a lot of difference. But for NFL players, it’s their livelihood, the job and how they make a living. Most guys who make it to that level are self-starters. They know how to work. You don’t make it that far and stay up there without having an outstanding work ethic.
Sometimes when you get young high school kids, you’ve got to teach them that work ethic.
Q: What do you have in mind for the offense? You’ve referred to a pro-style offense that will be fun to play. What do you mean by that?
In a pro-style offense, there’s less receivers on the field, so it probably won’t be as fun to play if you’re a receiver. There’s two backs on the field, so it’s a more physical style of play. If you enjoy more physical play, then it’s a fun offense to play in. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s probably not.
Q: Fewer receivers on the field? So the backs don’t go out, and you’ve got your wide receivers and tight ends but they’re not out there looking for a pass?
There are five eligible receivers however you cut it. You can go out there with five receivers or four, which is much like the spread. You can go out there with two receivers or even one, and add more backs and tight ends to your offense. They’re all eligible receivers, but we plan on running the ball more.
Q: Typically, a pro style doesn’t mean more passing?
Not necessarily. It’s more two back and running the ball.
Q: Who will call the plays? You said you won’t, so you’ll have an offensive coordinator. Who is that? And how much freedom will your quarterback have to change plays based on what he sees?
Patrick Higgins, our offensive coordinator, will be calling the plays, and Scott Stoker, our defensive coordinator, will be calling defensive plays.
We do have specific audibles that the quarterback will be in charge of and he’ll have free right to exercise those at the right time.
My job as head coach is to manage the entire thing and game-day management, and managing the coaches and the players. But I’m not a micro-manager as a coach. I’m going to let my coaches coach and my players play.
Q: So, what does the head coach do on game day?
There’s a lot. There’s clock management. Making sure the proper personnel are in there. Decision-making in critical situations. But there’s a lot that goes into game day, but more importantly, the preparation that goes into the week – getting the team prepared for game day.
Q: What about the defense? Are you looking at a 3-4 base or the nickel 4-2 and why? Anything new we’re going to see this year?
Yeah, we’re more of a nickel 4-2, based on coach Stoker’s scheme, and we’ll be a heavy pressure team and a heavy man team – man-to-man coverage. That’s the style of play we want.
Q: What about the Sun Bowl? She’s kind of an old gray lady these days. Any plans to dress her up?
I think the Sun Bowl’s one of the best stadiums in the country and one of the best backdrops for college football.
Having played on the turf and looked up there and seen the mountains and the fans and the coach there, I’m proud of the Sun Bowl and proud to coach in it.
Q: One of the things Coach Price did was to spruce up the pre-game activities. Before, everybody just came out and started to play. I though he made it a little more fun. Did some new things. Will you be doing anything special?
We’re going to stretch and get ready for the game.
The team will come out through the Larry K. Durham Center just like the past tradition for the last few years. So, not a lot of that will change.
Q: Nothing else planned?
No, I just hope we can put a competitive team out there every week.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.