Wyoming football seniors determined to help build championship foundation

2014-08-12T14:29:00Z 2014-08-13T00:17:04Z Wyoming football seniors determined to help build championship foundationMIKE VOREL Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
August 12, 2014 2:29 pm  • 

Dominic Rufran can see it now.

A few years down the road, the former Cowboy wide receiver will be chatting with an acquaintance, when they'll inevitably ask where he played his college football.

"Let’s say they win the national championship or something. I’ll be able to say, ‘I went to the University of Wyoming,’" Rufran said with a wide grin on Monday, his 21st birthday.

"People will know they’re really good. To be a part of something special like that, the window is there. It’s pretty cool.”

Rufran, as well as the team's 23 other seniors, represent the foundation.

It wasn't easy, after being recruited by and playing three years for a different staff, to start over and buy in to a completely unfamiliar system. Years are spent investing in a group of leaders, only to see them clean out their offices and disappear.

But then again, Wyoming cornerback Blair Burns has seen no shortage of turnover throughout his tenure.

“When I first got here, we had Coach [Marty] English and Coach [Alex] Grinch and all those guys," Burns said. "And then those two left and we had Coach [Robin] Ross and Coach Danilo [Robinson] on the defensive staff, and they kept bringing guys in and out and in and out.

"You kind of got used to people changing out. But for a whole new group to come in, it was a lot different."

Each of Wyoming's senior leaders can share a different story about the moment when they first embraced the change. In truth, it doesn't matter where or when it happened -- only that it did.

For Burns, that revelation came on Dec. 8, when head coach Craig Bohl flew in from Fargo, North Dakota, met the media and addressed his new team. The Cowboys were unfamiliar with their leader, having spent a week floating aimlessly on a boat that lacked a legitimate captain.

Bohl spent only one day in Laramie, but in that time, he emphasized to the senior class who he was, and where their program was headed.

"I just think, as a senior, when a new coaching staff comes in you kind of feel like they’re not trying to win now," Burns said. "They’re trying to rebuild and just get the guys they want in here and push the guys that they don’t want away.

"But we had a team meeting, and he talked to us. I think that the one thing he showed all the seniors was that they’re not looking to rebuild. They’re looking to win right away."

Senior receiver Jalen Claiborne remembers sitting in wide receivers coach Kenni Burns' office, and weighing his options.

There weren't many to weigh.

"I have one more year left, so there’s nothing else I could do but buy in," Claiborne said with a chuckle. "I felt like I had no choice but to do it. And I made the right decision.”

Rufran had to see to believe. And after the first week or two of spring practices, he had seen plenty.

"That's when I really saw how the offense was run and how the coaches worked," Rufran said. "Combine that with Coach Bohl’s leadership, and I think we all bought in."

The rest, as they say, is (recent) history. The seniors trusted...again, invested...again, and placed their final year of eligibility in the hands of Bohl and his newly formed coaching staff.

And when the coaches were gone, the veterans took over. They led a series of players-only practices throughout the summer, organizing workouts four times a week to ensure that when fall camp started, the troops would be ready.

Bohl, in his first season in Laramie, could accomplish little without the strength of 24 battle-tested Cowboys at his back.

“Those seniors have gone through an awful lot. They came here, and it’s a whole new coaching staff," Bohl said. "When younger players come in, they’re going to look up to the older guys. Their example, and being able to lead in a meaningful way, is important.”

In time, that sacrifice will be rewarded. Even if Wyoming doesn't take the Mountain West Conference by storm in 2014, Bohl has promised this inaugural group of seniors that when the Cowboys win a title -- whenever that may be -- these 24 leaders will also receive championship rings.

Any skyscraper, after all, could never have reached such dizzying heights without a solid foundation.

“That's so big. It means a lot to us," Claiborne said of Bohl's promise. "It makes us want to play for him. It makes it easy to play for a coach when you know he has your back.

"I like playing for Coach Bohl. I really like Coach Bohl a lot.”

Burns and Claiborne share a similar vision. Years from now, they'll return to Laramie, to a football program with the same colors but a different reputation.

Burns can hardly wait.

“Just to be the first team that Coach Bohl had up here, it’s an honor," he said. "I know he’s going to do amazing things. Hopefully he can win championships and we can start getting our name out there, and I can come back and be on the sidelines cheering them on when we have a couple championships under our belt.”

The goal is still to win now, however. Claiborne understands that a brighter future isn't possible unless the first wave clears the way.

“We have a great opportunity to put Wyoming football back on the map," he said. "Years from now, we’ll be able to come back and say we started it.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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