LARAMIE – It’s a cool, crisp September evening in Laramie, and University of Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen finds himself sitting in the stands at Deti Stadium like all the other football parents at Laramie High.
Under most circumstances, Vigen, in his seventh season leading the Cowboys’ offense, would likely find himself at this game anyway. But he would also be sidetracked by game planning for his team’s contest the next day.
Of course, 2020 is filled with far-from-normal circumstances. And on this particular night, Vigen is not a coach. He is a father. Vigen finds himself zeroed in on his child, No. 14 in maroon and gold.
When the Mountain West announced Aug. 10 that it was indefinitely postponing all of its fall sports due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, athletes and coaches around the UW football program were thrown for a loop. After working all summer to keep novel coronavirus transmission down, the rug was pulled out from under them.
For the first time in decades, Vigen and everyone associated with the Cowboys have free time from September to late December.
Vigen would normally only be able to see his oldest son, Jake, the junior starting quarterback for the Plainsmen, at home games. But with fewer commitments to attend to, he will be at all of his oldest son’s games, having already made the more than four-hour trek to Sheridan for the team’s opener last week.
The fall usually holds 12- to 16-hour work days, Vigen said. Right now? It’s closer to a normal 9-5 (though the start might be closer to 7 a.m., he adds).
“Typically, from Aug. 1 until whenever we’re done … the number of days off, you could probably count on one hand,” Vigen said.
But autumn isn’t all about losses in 2020. Not having UW football has allowed Vigen to focus on his most important job of all: being a family man and father.
A year ago, Vigen was unable to attend any of his now-eighth-grade son Grant’s football games. He was only at five or six of Jake’s games. Now? He plans to be at all of his three sons’ games, including ones for his fourth-grader, Luke, who is starting his first season of tackle football.
At a time when it would be easy to pout or be sour about what could have been for himself and the Cowboys, Brent Vigen finds himself thrilled for the chance to finally be a regular “football dad” this fall.
It’s not something he will take for granted.
By their very nature, coaches want to coach. But spending Friday nights this fall in the bleachers with his family is far from a consolation prize.
“After the disappointment became a reality, we began to try to figure out exactly what this new life would look like for us as a family. I told Brent this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for him to be able to watch every game the boys will play and be so present,” his wife, Molly, said. “Don’t get me wrong, all five of us would rather have Cowboys football. But he’s really taken advantage of his time with the boys.”
Jake admits he found himself looking up in the stands last Friday night to find his father, who inherently does his best to blend in with the rest of the crowd. It’s a fairly tall task given his stature and fame around town. But in typical Brent Vigen fashion, he was stone-faced. He always is, Jake said.
While some football dads spend the majority of their time screaming about play calls and officiating, the elder Vigen prefers to take it all in and talk about it with Jake after the game. Dad is always the first person Jake goes to after the final whistle blows, even if he’s been keeping his thoughts to himself for 60 minutes while his son battles on the field.
“He really wants to coach. So he’s been coaching me and my brothers as much as possible so he doesn’t have any withdrawals,” Jake said with a chuckle.
Jake and his father have been watching film daily and going out to various practice fields to work on skills. Molly has seen Jake write out plays and defenses he might see, something Brent does with UW’s quarterbacks.
A key for Brent, however, is not interfering with what Jake’s coaches at Laramie High preach. As much as he wants to coach his son, Brent knows he has to let him be his own man. Brent himself is the son of a high school football coach and knows full well how bad some parents can be.
“I still want him to be coached by his coaches at Laramie High. I don’t want to step in their way, just like I don’t want someone to step in our way,” Brent said.
Brent watches games in the stands with a coach’s eye, to be sure. He breaks down plays as they happen and, given his coaching acumen, probably knows how said play is going to turn out before the players on the field do. But there are more than a handful of moments where Brent focuses solely on Jake, who represents far more than just a single piece of a puzzle.
As a parent, you can’t help but focus on your own flesh and blood, no matter what else is going on around you. And in that respect, Brent is like everyone else in the bleachers: at the whims of unpredictable 14- to 18-year-olds. His résumé provides no edge at Deti Stadium. And that’s not a bad thing.
“He’s playing quarterback, so you’re trying to see coverage and see where he’s going with the ball,” Brent said. “But I’m particularly focused on him and what he’s doing. “
Luke was recently given his first set of pads and a helmet, a rite of passage for all children with gridiron dreams. In a sense, it reminds Vigen of why he coaches in the first place. There is something pure about seeing a child’s eyes light up when stepping onto a field for the first time, and something magical in seeing him walk around the house fully garbed for battle.
Football is beautiful at any level for Brent, who grew up playing nine-man football in North Dakota. The beauty of the sport comes in the process and happiness it brings those who play and coach it. To be part of that in some else’s life is magical.
“I hope just by seeing dad in the stands or the sideline, it’s more enjoyable,” he said. “I don’t want them to play football because their dad coaches football. Just enjoy it.”
While being around the house more often has certainly helped Jake from a football perspective, it’s meant far more than that as far as a father-son bond is concerned.
Brent lamented he wasn’t able to see his first two sons start their football journeys. He has been a college offensive coordinator the past 12 years and has spent nearly a quarter century roaming college sidelines. By its very nature, the coaching profession doesn’t allow you to stop and smell the roses, no matter what milestone you’d like to be celebrating.
This time, he gets to help his youngest son tighten his shoulder pads and adjust his helmet.
“I missed it with the other two,” Brent said, the slightest hint of regret present in his voice.
Coaches inevitably grow close to the players they mentor. The countless hours on the field and in the football facilities have a way of fortifying bonds between people who might otherwise have nothing else in common.
Brent is extremely close with his players, particularly his quarterbacks, who were set to be Levi Williams and Sean Chambers. And, right now, he knows he needs to be there for his signal callers, who are undergoing a wide range of emotions as their grand plans for the fall turned to rubble.
In some ways, you treat your players how you would treat your own children. But there is still a marked difference between coaching up a Cowboys player in practice and consoling your own child after a tough loss.
“As you coach, and as you have your own kids, you want to coach your guys like you’d want your sons coached,” Brent said. “But the ebbs and flows of how you emotionally are tied to your son are just different.”
For at least one fall, the two eldest Vigen men will be able to share more than X’s and O’s. It can be little things, as simple as cooking steaks on the grill for the family or doing projects around the house. “Coach Vigen” is different than “Jake’s father.” And for the first time in what seems like forever, Brent gets to be the best of both worlds.
“Coach Vigen is pretty serious. Dad is more joking,” Jake said. “He’s not as quiet as most people see him.”
This fall is set to be unlike any other for college football coaches and players around the country, whether their teams are scheduled to play games or not. Would Jake like to watch the Cowboys play on Saturdays? Of course. Does he wish his dad was coaching at War Memorial Stadium? Absolutely.
But seeing his dad in the house more often makes its own sort of mark.
“Hearing him ask football scenario questions to each one of the boys is pretty special for me,” Molly said. “I get to kind of see him in action.”
As for Brent? The term “blessing in disguise” gets thrown around a lot casually. But the next few months are truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a father and his sons to grow even closer, on and off a football field.
Yes, he finds himself in his office on campus still, at times wishing he was scheming for an upcoming game. That itch is going to be there until UW takes the field again, whenever that might be. There are times Brent isn’t quite sure what to do with himself.
Being around his boys during the fall, though? That’s about as good as it gets under any circumstances, pandemic or not.
“We’ll look back at this time and be grateful, and certainly try to be grateful for it in the moment,” Brent said. “That’s been the blessing, I guess, for me personally. I’ve been able to spend more time with family.”