How does a kid from Wyoming, the least populated state in the union, become the head coach of a Division I football team?
There’s not a wealth of examples from which to extract that answer. The Wikipedia category “Coaches of American football from Wyoming” links to two pages: current Washington State head coach Mike Leach, and Andrew “Andy” Kerr, who coached at Stanford, Washington & Jefferson, Colgate and Lebanon Valley in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.
Kerr, a Cheyenne native who actually went to high school in Pennsylvania, is the namesake of the football stadium at Colgate, where his 1932 team did not allow a single point. He was also a head basketball coach at Pittsburgh, Stanford and Washington & Jefferson and a head track and field coach at Pittsburgh. Have fun following that career path, kids.
Leach’s route to head coaching isn’t all that instructive, either. The former Cody Bronc, whose Cougars played in Laramie just two weeks ago, coached in Finland among other places before becoming a pioneer of the air raid offense, eventually making him a household name at Texas Tech and Washington State.
If you can get under the wing of an influential coach as Kerr did with Pop Warner, who first came up with shoulder pads and putting numbers on uniforms, and Leach did with Hal Mumme, essentially the father of the air raid, more power to you.
Otherwise, you might want to look to Josh Conklin.
Conklin, who does not yet have a Wikipedia page, is the first-year head coach of the Wofford Terriers, who play Saturday against Wyoming at War Memorial Stadium (2 p.m., Mountain West Network/Stadium).
He is also a Gillette native. Conklin played center, linebacker and defensive end for the Camels in the late ‘90s.
“There wasn’t a whole lot going on in Gillette, and the Camels were kind of the show in town,” Conklin said. “And being able to be a part of the tradition there and the sports program, I think there was an excellence there that kind of got instilled in everybody. That if you’re going to compete there you had to put the time in and you had to do things a certain way.”
His path from Gillette in 1998 to Laramie on Saturday — a serendipitous scheduling, considering the Cowboys and Terriers have never played before — has taken Conklin to the other side of country, though his bio might still pale in comparison to that of Leach and Kerr.
The blueprint was one Conklin wrote for himself.
Taking pride in everything I do cannot be something that happens once in a while. It must show up twenty-four hours a day. I see what determination and time will do for those who want to make a sacrifice. The passion will pay off down the road; even when the light at the end of the tunnel looks very bleak.
Not long after Conklin’s time at Gillette ended, he wrote a letter to his former head coach, John Scott, about his high school experience — pieces of which are quoted here in italics.
In it, Conklin thanks Scott for the influence he had on him in high school.
But Scott was just as thankful to have had Conklin as a player.
When Scott took over the Camels in 1995, Conklin was just a sophomore. But he already lived in the weight room, setting the tone that Scott wanted for his program.
“He was that kid that when we first got there — you describe it, you describe it, you describe it, because there’s nothing for them to see,” Scott, who now coaches at Lander, said. “And really Josh Conklin was one of the first guys that they could now see what we were talking about. And there it was. He was a walking example of the things that we wanted our football team to resemble.”
While Conklin was in high school, Gillette went from a two-win team to a seven-win team, reaching the Class 4A semifinals in each of the three years Conklin started. The year after he graduated, the Camels won their first state title.
“But when we really got over the hump was his senior year,” Scott said. “We got upset in a semifinal game, but I attribute a lot of that turnaround and the building of that program to him and to a couple guys out of his class. He simply raised everybody’s level and played with such an emotion.”
Scott remembers one moment that really defined Conklin’s attitude.
“You don’t encounter too many skirmishes, fights between your offense and defense or your scout team in high school like you do college,” Scott said. “But Conklin was involved in our first one with a scout player who had quite a bit of zeal himself. Next thing you know, they’re going at it, and they’re going at it in a college way. ... By the time we jumped in there, kind of realizing what we had here, we let it fester for a little bit, because it did create for us a kind of way of how we wanted things.
“... There was just intensity written all over this kid. That was exactly how he went about doing things.”
It’s not a quality that has diminished in Conklin.
“I made a (job) recommendation for him one time,” Scott said. “And the coach said, ‘Boy, I think he’s a little too intense.’ And I was like, ‘Coach, what’s wrong with that, man?’ There’s not a damn thing wrong with that.”
Love of the game
For forty-eight minutes the world stands still, and the field touches each edge of the horizon. As war nears, and the stage is set, all caution gets thrown aside. The silence screams to be released. Then, like an explosion, the body twitches, the mind rages, and all hell breaks loose. The feeling cannot be explained. It’s the single moment in time that every football player lives for.
It’s probably safe to say that the majority of football players have a passion for football. It would be kind of hard for them to play such a grueling sport if they didn’t.
But few football players’ passion for the game could be described as downright lyrical. The above passage from Conklin’s letter to Scott gets that across pretty well.
“I mean, I loved football ever since I was in third grade and we started the midget football program there in Gillette,” Conklin said. “I just loved it. I just really enjoyed it. I enjoyed going to high school games as a kid, watching the team. I didn’t go play football like everybody else did. I was actually watching the game.”
Conklin sent Scott more than just a letter back in 1998. He also wrote a poem. It’s titled “The Final Night.” It reads, in its entirety:
“The faithful with hope, wander from the stands, Their eyes a broken warrior who has lost all his land. Seconds on the clock have finally wound down, And the men in purple lye quietly on the ground. Tears flood their faces like a calm cool river, Thoughts of what they lost driven home by a shiver. Yells and screams washed away on another fallen year, And agony bleeds out for one final cheer.
“I sacredly sit with the silence all around, And try to escape, the dreadful defeat I have unfortunately found. Coaches words spoken perfect, not sounding like goodbye, Loneliness looms over the victim, awaiting to die. Each senior speaks of the reality thrown in his face, And the underclassmen never want, to stand in their place. A goal was not reached, that we fought for, Now the winners right here will shut the locker room door.
“Parents and friends who triumphed all the dreams, Can’t let em’ go, or that’s how it seems. The eerie lights glow down on a dry frozen land, All are struggling to believe they had the better hand. The team must now make their exit, one last time, And feel all emotions that made the ride so fine. With my helmet in hand I silently pray, Lord, don’t let my football love end on this day.”
The single most important thing I’ve gained is knowing success must be driven from the inside out. If I believe in myself, the obstacles ahead can be overcome. Individuality may not always be the easiest thing, but as long as I have my own word and heart the journey will be a little less feared.
Like Leach, who went to BYU but did not play football, Conklin didn’t take the Equality State’s most obvious inroad to college football. The University of Wyoming, the state’s lone four-year school, talked to Conklin about walking on but ultimately he decided to go to NAIA Dakota State, where he was a starting linebacker and academic all-American.
For Conklin’s football career to even make it that far was an achievement.
“You look at the kid and you go, ‘He doesn’t fit the football prototype,’” Scott said. “Because back then — now he looks like a marathoner — but back then he ... did not have a football body. I’m going to tell you that right now. He was pudgy and he had a big ol’ butt and legs.”
But Conklin “willed (himself) into being a functional player,” as he put it himself. Conklin credits part of that to his Wyoming upbringing.
“I think the biggest thing that you take is there’s just a sense of independence,” he said. “I think people are tough, blue collar. I think a lot of those things sometimes are cliche-ish, but you find a way to get the job done and get the work done. That’s always the thing that I’ve had a lot of respect for. My family that’s still out there, I think that was instilled in me. I don’t think you have a choice, being from there.
“... My mom and dad, both tireless workers, they were in education in Gillette for 30-plus years and just did their job and tried to do it at a really high level. And that was just kind of what I was around my whole life.”
His independent spirit paid off when he broke into the coaching world. After working as a graduate assistant and secondary coach at South Dakota State, where his Jackrabbits went 1-3 against Craig Bohl’s North Dakota State Bison, Conklin took a job as Wofford’s secondary coach.
“For me, I just wanted to get down to the Southeast part of the country, just to experience (it),” Conklin said. “The SEC, the ACC, I wanted to experience what that was all about, what the brand of football was all about. I’ve always had a lot of respect for the South Dakota States, North Dakota States, UNIs of the world. I mean, that conference is really, really good. I just wanted to experience something a little bit different.”
Of course, doing so meant making a move out of his comfort zone.
“He just simply ventured out,” Scott said. “And just like he ventured into our weight room in ‘95, he ventured out there and said, ‘Here’s how I do it.’ And I think that’s a tribute to him. He didn’t play the coaching kiss-ass game.”
From Wofford, Conklin went on to be the defensive coordinator at The Citadel, the secondary coach at Tennessee and the D.C. at Florida International and Pittsburgh before returning to the Terriers this year as head coach.
Not bad for a chubby kid from Gillette.
“I just think the deck is stacked against you a little bit, being from a small state and the small population,” Conklin said, “in terms of having to go out and kind of create your own network and do all those types of things.
“But yeah, I remember in high school trying to just find a place to go play college football. And in those days, I mean, I’m calling Chadron State to see if they’ve got anything left and they were full. It was Sioux Falls and Dakota State, were the two that I kind of came down to and I picked Dakota State.
“It’s been a good path, though. It’s been great. I’ve enjoyed it.”