LARAMIE – For many, the best way to see the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team is when they play at home.
But you might be surprised to learn where the Cowboys were when they were not doing their normal routine of games, practices, workouts and – for the players – going to class.
From reading to elementary school kids to partaking in community celebrations in Laramie and around the state to playing softball with local firefighters and law enforcement officers to players and coaches taking members of the Laramie and UW communities to lunch on campus, there is a good chance you’ve seen the Cowboys out and about a lot over the last year.
Community service is nothing new for UW basketball. Coach Allen Edwards was an assistant with the Cowboys from 2011-16 for Larry Shyatt, and UW did its share back then.
But now, in his third year as head coach, Edwards and the Cowboys have been doing more.
“We’ve always done it. Coach Shyatt just was big on not publicizing it,” Edwards said. “My first few years, that was my approach because you do it because that was what you’re supposed to do.
“Because it is a different era now, and how social media works, you are trying to engage the community and student body.”
To do that, UW is out among the people. It isn’t a new idea or approach, and the men’s basketball team isn’t the only sports program at UW that does this.
But it does a lot, and for Edwards, it goes back to when he was growing up in Miami.
“I used to always get excited meeting a Miami Heat player, or the University of Miami basketball players,” Edwards said. “Those things spoke volumes to me, and I remember how I felt.”
Edwards also has been on the other side of it. As a basketball player at Kentucky, where the Wildcats won two national championships while he was there, basketball was – and still is – the biggest show in town. People not only packed Rupp Arena for games, they took every opportunity possible to see or interact with the players.
“You have people crying when they meet you,” Edwards said. “Even today, I still see people who talk about when I met them when I played there. I have no clue who they are, but it stays with me.
“That was the message to our guys – you don’t understand how that type of stuff impacts people’s lives, but at the same time, how much it impacts your life. That’s the sales pitch you have to give kids these days because they have so much going on in their lives. You’re taking more of their time.”
Things haven’t gone well for the Cowboys on the court. Injuries, suspensions and attrition have led to a sub-.500 record and a 2-4 record at home. UW lost four times at home all of last season. Conference play begins next week, so the road won’t get any easier.
But in terms of that sales pitch Edwards described that he and his staff give to players to be involved within the community and state, the players have bought in.
“It has definitely meant a lot, and as the years go on, you appreciate it more,” senior guard Justin James said. “You see the same faces after the games, the same faces walking around in the stores. Having people come up and say ‘I’m glad you did this for us’ makes you value all the people that care about us and this university.”
UW has seven first-year players on its roster this season. Everything is new to them on the court, and so is their community service work.
“It is a great feeling, and it is humbling,” true freshman guard Tariq Johnson said. “You see people young and old. They know your name. Sometimes it is a little overwhelming, but to see the smiles on kids’ faces and see all the great fans, I love doing it.”
Edwards said he and his staff have to be careful what they do and when they do it in terms of their already-busy schedules, but added if there is enough notice and planning, he will do what he can to get himself and his team out there.
After UW’s two games at the Sun Bowl Invitational in El Paso, Texas, this weekend, Edwards said the players will go home for a few days before coming back to campus to get ready for their final nonconference game Saturday at home against Division II Dixie State.
Jerron Granberry played for UW during the 2013-14 season. He was a graduate assistant the previous two seasons, and is a special assistant for Edwards this season. Granberry plans and organizes most of UW’s community service activities.
It took a while to go over the list of activities and events the Cowboys attended this year. Then, Granberry said: “What more can we do to get back out there? It is not an obligation, but something we should want to do. We’re not doing it to get you in the stands. We’re trying to teach these kids to be decent people over their lifetime.”
But there are challenges. As Edwards said earlier, in the era of Twitter, Facebook and numerous other things that have people’s attention, getting fans to come to games is harder than ever. Not just at UW, but throughout the country in college basketball.
But more importantly to Edwards and his basketball team, it is about engaging with people face-to-face.
That’s why UW recently started having players and coaches take someone to lunch on campus once a month. It could be a student, professor, university employee or someone in the community.
“The reason behind that is there’s so many online classes and there are so many people who take them who never go on campus,” Edwards said. “That was the beauty of college back in the day – hanging out at the student union was a big deal. A lot of this generation doesn’t do that.
“It also is a way the players can introduce themselves to classmates, the student body and be a part of campus life. I think that’s missing in this day and age.”
Edwards remembers growing up in Miami and seeing athletes he looked up to. He said adults now may not feel that way when seeing UW players, but their kids do. And if it is not about the kids, it is a chance for Edwards’ players to see that some people live completely different lives than they do.
Yes, there is frustration over the struggles that have occurred on the court, but there are a lot of people out there who have bigger concerns.
“For our guys, they get to talk to people who had a different walk in life,” Edwards said. “Everyone has a story, and sometimes as young people they think they are the only one with a story. That opens their eyes when see people going to a shelter to get food when they’ve always been provided for."
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.