If it’s possible to win a news conference that didn’t technically take place, Jeff Linder has already tallied his first victory as the University of Wyoming’s new men’s basketball coach.
Linder was named the Cowboys’ 22nd basketball coach March 17, replacing Allen Edwards, who spent four years at the helm. Linder, a Colorado native, spent four seasons leading Northern Colorado, amassing an 80-50 overall record, including 69 wins over his final three seasons.
Whether it was due to travel logistics or the threat of COVID-19 that has (rightfully) dominated headlines in recent weeks, Linder did not have an in-person news conference following the announcement. He instead joined local media on a teleconference call last Wednesday, and answered questions on a number of topics, from taking over a team that’s won 17 games over the past two seasons, to keeping players from transferring all the way to the challenges of managing a new team in the midst of a global pandemic.
A few things stood out, in particular, when Linder spoke.
First, unsurprisingly, were his passion and confidence. Former Boise State player Ryan Watkins, who played for Linder when he was an assistant with the Broncos, told Wyo Sports that Linder is “one of, if not the best, basketball mind I’ve ever been around,” lauding his ability to put players in position to be successful.
When Linder spoke to reporters, there was no question of whether he was going to reverse the Pokes’ fortunes. It wasn’t a matter of “when,” either. If Linder is to be believed (and, given his résumé, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be), UW is going to be competitive in 2020-21. Every word he said seemed plausible.
“We’re going to win next year. You have to believe that. I wouldn’t have left my situation there if I didn’t think we could have a winning team here from day one. It’s not unrealistic to do some great things,” Linder said. “With what we have right now, and by adding a few pieces, we can get there.”
But beyond fire and certainty was an underlying theme I am personally curious to see up close when I get the chance to speak to him: Did Linder understand what basketball truly means to Cowboys fans? How cognizant would the new man in charge be of history? Well, in an introductory statement sent out by UW, Linder clearly passed the test.
“I’m extremely excited for the opportunity to be the men’s basketball coach at the University of Wyoming,” Linder said in the statement. “Wyoming has a rich basketball tradition which, at a young age, I was introduced to on the Sports Illustrated cover that featured Cowboy great Fennis Dembo.
“From that time on, growing up down the road in Denver, I was always rooting for the Cowboys. For me to now have the opportunity to lead this acclaimed program is an honor that I won’t take for granted. I will work to build on the storied past built and laid before me and diligently work to make Wyoming basketball a force to be reckoned with.”
Fennis Dembo? Check. The legendary Sports Illustrated cover? Naturally. Bringing up the good old days? He hit every nail squarely on the head.
But in his teleconference, Linder went off script.
He mentioned declining attendance across the nation, whether it be due to the availability of games on television, or just dwindling interest in an age of oversaturation in sports.
He then brought up UW’s uniqueness. As opposed to a city like say, Denver, there is no competition with professional sports or other universities. Other than high school sports, the Cowboys have no competition. From the time children take their first breaths, they are raised to bleed brown and gold.
Linder is cognizant of the rarity and subsequent opportunity at hand.
“(There are) so few (programs) where people truly care,” Linder said. “Wyoming is the only show in town. It’s the only show in the state. That’s what really excited me.”
In this reporter’s opinion, UW had to go outside of its ranks on the coaching hire. Edwards, for all the great things he did, didn’t work out. He, of course, was an assistant on previous coach Larry Shyatt’s staff. Shyatt, meanwhile, served two terms as the Cowboys’ head coach. UW hadn’t hired a coach without some sort of preexisting ties to the basketball program since hiring Steve McClain in 1998.
That’s more than 20 years of barking up the same tree over and over again and crossing fingers for a positive result. It was time for fresh blood.
This is a pivotal time in the history of the program. Consecutive 20-loss seasons can’t be the standard.
Were there sexier names out there? Of course. Some clamored for former Colorado State and Nebraska coach Tim Miles, given his familiarity with the Mountain West and the region as a whole. There were rumors about New Mexico State’s Chris Jans, who has done an admirable job keeping the Aggies at the top of the WAC. There was even a segment of fans that wanted Shyatt back for a third rodeo.
At the end of the day, UW needed a fresh start. But, at the same time, it needed someone who understood what basketball means to Laramie and the Cowboy state.
When athletics director Tom Burman lured Craig Bohl away from North Dakota State in December 2013, the hire represented a similar ideology: Bohl, a Nebraska native, was familiar with the area, its landscape and the UW program. He wasn’t directly related to the athletic department, but he understood it. He knew what football means to UW. Even though it’s only been a week or so, it appears Linder understands Cowboys basketball in the same way.
Does knowing a program automatically equate to victories? Of course not.
Edwards, though successful over his first two seasons, is proof that it does not always work in the long run. But the combination of a solid head coaching résumé, mixed with an understanding of a program and the people who passionately adore it? It sure seems like a winning combination to me.