Wyoming head football coach Dave Christensen has been fired, the university announced Sunday afternoon.
The action took place a day after Wyoming's 35-7 defeat at Utah State concluded a 5-7 season, its second consecutive losing season under Christensen. The Cowboys finished 4-8 in 2012.
“We have come to a point where our football program has not achieved at the level of success that we expect, and we know from past experience that we can be successful,” Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman said in a release. “It is with that in mind that we move forward in search of a new leader for Cowboy football."
Christensen signed a five-year contract extension worth $1.2 million annually after the 2011 season. He has three years left on that contract. Wyoming will pay him his base salary of $190,008 for the remaining three years of his contract for a total of $570,024. The buyout will be paid with non-state dollars, Burman said.
After announcing the dismissal, Burman said in a release that a national coaching search will begin immediately. The status of the team's assistant coaches was not commented upon.
Christensen -- previously the offensive coordinator at Missouri and Toledo -- finished with a 27-35 record, including 16-23 in Mountain West play. His team went only 5-27 against teams that finished their seasons with winning records, and 0-14 against ranked teams.
After Wyoming's 48-7 defeat at Boise State on Nov. 16 Christensen acknowledged that the Cowboys were still nowhere near the conference or national elite.
"We’re not to their caliber in any way, shape of form," Christensen said. "We’re trying to get there. We’re not even close to the 16th team in the country. And had Boise not had some injuries they’d probably be ranked right now also. They’re both [Fresno State and Boise State] very established programs with great depth and a lot of big-time playmakers, and we’re working to get there.”
Christensen's tenure wasn't only filled with losses and disappointment. After the firing of former Wyoming coach Joe Glenn, Christensen was introduced as the Cowboys' 31st head coach on Dec. 1, 2008.
It was the longtime offensive coordinator's first appointment as head coach.
"I can't tell you how excited I am to be given the opportunity to lead the Wyoming Cowboy football program. The opportunity to become a head coach is something I've been preparing for my entire career," Christensen said at the time.
"This is a great job at an outstanding university. Wyoming has a rich football tradition, and combined with the new, state-of-the art facilities, I know we can win here."
Christensen followed through on that declaration in his first season, capping a 6-6 regular season with a 35-28 double overtime victory over Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl.
After finishing a disappointing 3-9 in 2010, the Cowboys returned to bowl eligibility the next year, going 8-4 before losing to Temple in the New Mexico Bowl in quarterback Brett Smith's first season under center.
Since that time the Cowboys have gone 9-15.
Questions were raised about Christensen's leadership after his team's 28-27 defeat against Air Force on Oct. 13, 2012. Believing that the Falcons faked an injury late in the game, Christensen unleashed a verbal tirade directed towards Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun during the postgame handshake, all of which was caught on film.
Burman suspended Christensen for one game and fined him $50,000 for his actions.
"Not today," Burman said at the time, when asked if Christensen's job was in jeopardy. "He will be evaluated at the end of the year, just like we do with every coach. But I can tell you that he is going to be the head coach at Wyoming next year."
"Next year" has come and gone, and the Cowboys have missed out on another bowl game. After running out to a 4-2 start, Wyoming lost five of its final six games -- allowing at least 48 points in five consecutive conference games.
This included an embarrassing 52-22 Border War defeat to rival Colorado State at home, the largest margin of defeat for Wyoming in the rivalry since a 40-0 defeat in 1925. It was Christensen's first loss in five Border War games.
Christensen fired second-year defensive coordinator Chris Tormey just over a week later, following a 51-44 loss to San Jose State on Oct. 26.
“I felt that we needed to make a change at this time to give our football team and the young men on it the best opportunity to win our remaining four regular-season games,” Christensen said on Oct. 29.
But the bleeding didn't stop, and the Cowboys lost three of their next four by large margins.
Wyoming dealt with off-the-field distractions during the 2013 season as well. After the season-opening 37-34 defeat at No. 18 Nebraska, former UW President Robert Sternberg agreed to a contract with consulting firm Collegiate Sports Associates, instructing the firm to evaluate the competitiveness of the football and men's basketball programs.
The final report, delivered on Nov. 1 and made public on Nov. 4, highlighted a "pervading opinion that 'good enough is good enough' in football and basketball. Thus, there is not a sense of urgency and accountability that accompanies programs with high expectations for competitive success."
However, the report also gave a firm vote of confidence for Wyoming's head coaches, Christensen included.
"The Athletics Director and head football and basketball coaches are highly competitive veterans that know and understand their respective jobs, have the experience and expertise to carry them out, and are passionate about their programs and University of Wyoming," the report stated.
Following his team's season-ending defeat at Utah State on Saturday, Christensen said Wyoming isn't far from turning things around. His players stressed the need to assess themselves to improve.
“I think everybody has to do a little bit of self-evaluation, and just continue to work and continue to try our best to get better and learn from it," Smith said. "I think that’s what we’re going to do.”
Sophomore defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, who finished with team highs in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (6.5), said all the Cowboys need is more time.
“I feel like we just have to keep working and growing as individuals and players. There’s nothing wrong with the program," Yarbrough said. "I feel like we just have to keep growing and developing, and it’ll all come together.”
When asked after the game if he'll be Wyoming's head coach next season, Christensen smiled and calmly replied, "As far as I know."
Less than a day later, the "Christensen Era" in Laramie officially came to a close.
Burman said a new coach can jump-start a new era of winning.
“Wyoming football has been successful at many periods in our history,” Burman said. “When you combine that great tradition with the investment we’ve made in developing outstanding football facilities that are among the best not only in our conference but in the West, we believe that we can achieve great success again.”