This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
For forty-four years, we waited. Before 2000, the last time Miner fans celebrated a conference championship was in1956 and UTEP was in the Border Conference. Dwight Eisenhower was in his first term. After the Stull era ended, we endured a seemingly endless run of 3 and 4 win seasons. Then, in 2000, under a first time head coach in his first season, all the pieces that eluded so many UTEP teams all suddenly fell into place. The Miners went 8-3, won their first WAC Championship in 33 years in the league, and played in their first bowl game in 12 years.
The 2000 UTEP Miners football team woke up a city, and allowed Miner fans everywhere to realize that UTEP could not only compete for, but win, conference championships. Growing up, I had heard about the '88 team, but was too young to remember the success. The reason why the 2000 squad is my favorite, is because that was the team that showed my generation that the Miners could make an impact on college football.
The team had an incredible mixture of blue collar gym rats and elite talent that was waiting to break out. The Miners found a veteran, dependable signal caller. Rocky Perez. Perez was a gamer, a leader, a guy that always appeared to be in control. He didn't have NFL size, but he was one of those rare quarterbacks that just knew how to find the open man when it mattered. Regardless of the score, you always felt like UTEP had a chance to come back with Perez in at QB.
The team was filled with players that Miner fans will remember as among their all-time favorites. You had UTEP's first Consensus All-American, tight end Brian Natkin. Natkin, also a senior, led the nation's tight ends in receptions (63) and receiving yards (775). Perez had a speedy wide receiver, Lee Mays, as well. On defense, the squad was led by Crance Clemons and Bobby King among others. Even the teams kicker, the always reliable Ricky Biship was a fan favorite as he played locally for Austin High. Menson Holloway settled in at defensive tackle and gave opponents fits. Natkin, Holloway, and Mays played in the NFL.
The team wasn't loaded from top to bottom, and the schedule wasn't easy, but the Miners never allowed themselves to get pushed around. Early on in September, the Miners traveled to College Station to take on Texas A&M. The final score may have read 45-17, but that final doesn't reflect the battle that day. UTEP took a 17-14 halftme lead against the Aggies. A&M's quarterback Mark Farris said after the game, "Everybody called it a tune-up all week, but the team didn’t see it that way," A&M quarterback Mark Farris said. "These guys gave us a run for our money." It was just that kind of team, a group of veterans that were sick of losing, and who were willing to do what it took to go out on top.
The Miners finished 8-3, and would eventually beat Rice to claim their first ever WAC Championship. UTEP played in the Humanitarian Bowl, against the home team, Boise State. The Bronco's, behind an All-American quarterback beat UTEP in a hard fought game. Despite the bowl loss, the 2000 UTEP Miners football team will go down in team history as the one that helped change a local mindset that, at the time, firmly believed that losing was UTEP's only option in football. That's why, they're my favorite UTEP team. Who's yours?