The UTEP Miners hadn’t won a football game in 376 days when Dana Dimel agreed to become the school’s twenty-sixth head coach on December 6, 2017. He’d been in charge of programs at Wyoming and Houston earlier in his career, but three separate stints on Bill Snyder’s staff at Kansas State helped most to prepare him for what lay ahead.
UTEP’s 0–12 futility the season before Dimel arrived was small potatoes compared with Kansas State losing 40 of 43 in the four years before Snyder took over in 1989. Unfortunately, UTEP’s misery didn’t just end the day Dimel walked through the door.
The Miners would pick up only two wins in his first 1,004 days on the job. His first team went 1–11. His second team went 1–11. Combine those with the winless season that preceded Dimel’s hiring and that’s 2–34 over a three-year stretch, which is too close for comfort to K-State’s infamous 3–40 mark.
Four years into Dimel’s tenure, something remarkable has happened at UTEP. The Miners improved to a respectable 3–5 during last year’s pandemic-shortened season, and that success has carried over into 2021.
UTEP, now 6–1 heading into Saturday’s game at Florida Atlantic, is off to its best start since 2005. There’s some buzz, too, with ESPN’s recent announcement that it would carry the Miners’ November 6 game against unbeaten UTSA on ESPN2. It’ll be UTEP’s first appearance on the network since 2017.
UTEP’s only loss this season was a 54–13 blowout against Boise State, a game in which the Miners committed six turnovers. But they’ve also survived some close calls: like trailing New Mexico 13–3 at the half before rallying to win 20–13; like trailing Old Dominion 21–20 in the fourth quarter before grinding out a 28–21 victory. After the disappointment and frustration of those 1–11 seasons, though, the Miners will take the wins any way they can get ’em.
“We’re not ones to play around with this year,” wide receiver Jacob Cowing told the El Paso Times after catching seven passes for 174 yards against New Mexico. “We’re a good team. After this game, we should have the respect we deserve.”
That last part is still a work in progress. UTEP is an underdog this weekend at Florida Atlantic and the Miners will certainly be favored to lose at UTSA the following Saturday. But the record speaks for itself, and 6–1 is a massive step in the right direction for a program that had won only five games over the previous four seasons.
“It’s so unbelievable,” Dimel told Texas Monthly. “It’s just crazy the way our guys practice and the enthusiasm they have. You can see they’re starting to become more unified because of that, and then the look in their eyes in the locker room is really cool. They’re dancing with each other, dancing with coaches. There’s nothing like winning to bring people together, and they’re realizing that their hard work is paying off.”
UTEP’s reemergence comes in a season when other Texas programs, especially undefeated SMU and UTSA, along with 6–1 Baylor, are also winning. That broad success appears to reflect both the talent that Texas high schools produce and the quality of the coaching.
For his part, Dimel has followed his old boss Snyder’s blueprint of loading up on junior college players—the Miners have 39 JUCO transfers on the roster. At one point, five UTEP starters had played at Kilgore College.
“JUCO guys come in, and they’ve got experience, and they’re hungry,” Dimel said. “They’re very much appreciative of the things that you have at the Division 1 level, and they play with a lot of intensity and spirit. They also have game experience that you can’t coach.”
After years on the recruiting trail in every corner of Texas, Dimel believes the relationships he forged with hundreds of high school and junior college coaches has paid off. “They’ll tell me, `Okay, here’s the kind of guy you want—he may not be a four-star, might not be on everybody’s recruiting radar, but he’s the kind of culture guy that fits what you guys have won with in the past,’” Dimel explained. “We’ve been so fortunate to hit on some really, really good junior college players.”
He found defensive tackle Keenan Stewart at Iowa Western Community College. Stewart had been a hot recruit at one point, but injuries cost him playing time and had him looking for an opportunity. “I’m watching his film and all the things he’s doing,” Dimel said. “I’m thinking this young guy’s as good a defensive lineman as you can find anywhere in the country on film. When I went to meet him, I’m betting he’ll be five foot eleven because his only offer was Southeast Missouri State. I walk in the door, and here he is, six two, three hundred and five pounds. Super long arms, explosive looking body. Are you kidding me?”
Stewart has been a cornerstone on a UTEP defense that’s allowing 297.4 yards a game, ninth-lowest in the country. Another key signing was defensive end Jadrian Taylor, a Kilgore transfer who leads the Miners with 6.5 sacks. “That’s a case of us having connections at Kilgore,” Dimel said. “He didn’t play all the time, wasn’t a high-profile player. Now he’s one of the guys getting a ton of sacks and doing some great things.”
Linebacker Tyrice Knight signed with UTEP out of Independence Community College in Kansas. On the day Dimel showed up to make his recruiting pitch, he said two other Division I coaches—Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Western Kentucky’s Tyson Helton—were also in the building. “There are a hundred and thirty Division I head coaches, and you have three of them in one building because Independence was loaded,” Dimel said. “We’re tiptoeing around there because we didn’t want them to see us talking to Tyrice. Luckily, we got him, and he’s probably one of the best linebackers in [Conference USA].”
As for Miners quarterback Gavin Hardison, the signal caller from just across the Texas state line in Hobbs, New Mexico, simply showed up at a UTEP summer camp after a season at New Mexico Military Institute. “He’s throwing the ball at our camp,” Dimel said, “and we see a guy that has as strong an arm as anybody I’ve ever coached. I think he’d started five games the previous year.”
This surely isn’t how Dimel imagined his career would play out when the University of Wyoming made him head coach in 1997, when Dimel was just 34. He went 22–13 in three seasons with the Cowboys before jumping to the University of Houston. That’s where his career path took an unexpected turn. Unable to replicate the success he’d had at Wyoming, Houston fired him after a third straight losing season and an 8–26 record.
At forty, Dimel was no longer a hot commodity. He spent the next sixteen years finishing his master’s in leadership studies while working assistant coaching jobs at Arizona and K-State. Four years ago, about the time he and his wife, Julie, became empty nesters, Dimel began looking for another challenge.
“It was time for me to be a head coach again,” he said. “I think it was time to go out and try to find a head coaching job that would fit my job specs because of the turnarounds I’d been part of. This was perfect for me to come in and get it back on track. I felt like it was a great fit with my Texas recruiting ties.”
In the beginning, as defeats stacked up, Dimel looked for silver linings. “He would look for progress wherever he could find it,” UTEP athletic director Jim Senter said. “Where are we better? That may be a reduction in penalties. It may be moving the ball better or getting better stops on third down. Every week, you’re looking to find the positive things because if all you do is see the final score, it’s not going to go well. If you have enough positive things happening, they start to add up, right?”
Dimel said the entirety of his experiences—hired by Wyoming at 34, fired by UH at 40—taught him to process the ups and downs of coaching better than he had earlier in his career. “What I’ve seen sometimes is that coaches take it so personally when they lose, and they lash out at their players,” he said. “I understand why, because everybody works so hard and is frustrated when it doesn’t work out.
“I tried to look around and see how many good kids we had and how hard they were trying and how hard they were working to build the program,” he continued. “I’m like, `I gotta hang in there. If I don’t stay positive, how the heck are these kids going to stay positive?’ It wasn’t easy. It really grinds on you. You just have to hang in there.”
Now, Dimel and the 6–1, bowl-eligible UTEP Miners are getting a taste of the success they waited and worked for.