LARAMIE -- The last time Jeff Phelps was in this stadium, his defensive front helped limit Wyoming to just 206 yards of total offense, including nine in the first quarter.

Tyler Vander Waal completed just eight of his 20 throws. The Cowboys signal caller finished with 67 passing yards and an interception in a lopsided 41-19 home-opening loss to Washington State back in 2018.

"Not a bad day at the office," UW's new defensive tackles coach said, sporting a gap-toothed grin.

Laramie Live logo
Get our free mobile app

That's an understatement.

The Cougars finished with three sacks to go along with eight tackles for loss. The visitors also limited Craig Bohl's potent rushing attack to just 3.6 yards per carry. It was indeed a good day for Phelps and the gang, but one thing that has stuck with him since that day is the atmosphere inside War Memorial Stadium.

"Every team is slightly different, every venue is slightly different, but this place you remember," Phelps said, referring to the 24,131 in attendance on that sun-drenched September day on the high plains. "We stepped in here and it was loud, it was energetic, you know, the stands were packed. You're just like, man, this is a really neat environment."

Wyoming's rookie head coach Jay Sawvel, Phelps said, attempted to use that as a pitch in the hiring process.

He didn't need to.

"No doubt it is one in which the fan base is passionate about the game, about the product and about the brand that is Wyoming football," he added.

This won't be Phelps' first stint with Sawvel.

Those two roamed the sidelines together for nine years in stops at Northern Illinois and Minnesota. They never lost contact, said Phelps, who spent last season at North Dakota State.

"Getting the call from him, and getting the opportunity to reconnect with him, it was definitely something that I wanted to do, and something that I've always wanted to do, because he's a great person and he's an outstanding coach," Phelps said. "You combine those two things together, and as an assistant coach, I think you're always looking for that."

Having a veteran front, along with some exciting young pieces in trenches, didn't hurt the cause, either.

Jordan Bertagnole, coming off a 58-tackle campaign, announced recently he will return for a sixth season in Laramie. Gavin Meyer is back, too. So is Ben Florentine and Jaden Williams, along with Caleb Robinson and a whole host of freshmen like Dante Drake, Lucas Samsula and Jayden Williams, among others.

Wyoming's interior played a major role in holding opponents to just 144.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks 49th in the FBS. Six of the team's 24 quarterback sacks also came from that position.

What has he told that group since arriving on campus? Nothing. Instead, he listened.

"I wanted to ask them what it was that they felt that they needed to improve on this upcoming year," Phelps said. "I think, again, the players are the ones that are out there playing. I want to make sure that their voice is heard and that they have a strong voice. I want to make sure that I'm interpreting what they're saying."

Phelps is not only replacing a popular coach in Oscar Giles, he will be sliding in for one of the most effective recruiters on the former staff. Giles, who accepted a job at the University of Houston last week, scoured his home state of Texas in search of prospects.

That responsibility now belongs to Phelps.

"I hope that I can do as good a job that he did, because he's brought a lot of talented players here, without a doubt," Phelps said of Giles, adding that he has also recruited in the Lone Star State while coaching at Mississippi State from 2020-22. "... They gave me the territory yesterday and I'm in there mapping it out, trying to pinpoint where all those schools are at and getting on the phone with those coaches in those communities. Getting down there in the spring is going to be important."

Phelps said he also plans to rely on Texas players on the roster to aid in the search.

"You want to make sure that you keep that pipeline going," he continued. "... I think the players do a great job of recruiting players, so we have to make sure that they're part of that recruiting process, as well."

Phelps is inviting and honest. He's quick to flash a grin and is proud to be a players coach.

He learned from one of the best.

For six seasons, he served on Mike Leach's staff in Pullman and Starkville. Leach, who died unexpectedly in 2022, was known to the world as a quirky character with an unorthodox offensive system known as the air raid.

Around here, Leach is known as a local.

Phelps said he thought of Leach when he took this job and often tries to mimic the way he treated others. He utilizes those qualities on the sidelines and in life, he says.

"He was a great man. He really was," Phelps said. "... You know that he was genuine in what he did. He's the guy that would walk to work and people in the community would stop him and he'd stop and talk with them. It didn't matter who you were, it didn't matter what your social-economical class was. I joke around and I say if he was talking to a custodian and the president of the university was sitting there waiting for him, he would invite the president into the conversation with the custodian, but he wouldn't walk away from anybody on a conversation. He was so very genuine in that way."

What would Leach, who grew up in Cody, say to Phelps after taking this gig?

"Never leave," he said with a smile. "Never leave. It's God's country. He loved this place ... I tell you what, just the stories and the way he just lit up about this place, Wyoming, no doubt, never left his heart as far as being a special place for him."

University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players

During the summer of 2021, counted down the Top 50 football players in University of Wyoming history, presented by Premier Bone & Joint Centers, Worthy of Wyoming.

The rules are simple: What was the player's impact while in Laramie? That means NFL stats, draft status or any other accolade earned outside of UW is irrelevant when it comes to this list.

This isn't a one-man job. This task called for a panel of experts. Joining 7220's Cody Tucker are Robert GagliardiJared NewlandRyan Thorburn, and Kevin McKinney.

We all compiled our own list of 50 and let computer averages do the work. Think BCS -- only we hope this catalog is fairer.

Don't agree with a selection? Feel free to sound off on our Twitter: @7220sports - #Top50UWFB

Gallery Credit:

- University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players

More From Laramie Live