Eight years ago, Colorado State University-Pueblo football was dormant; alive in only the memories of alumni and former players. Football, among many programs at the then University of Southern Colorado, were cut to save money.
Football would have a resurgence in the city that no one could have predicted.
An empty lot filled with dirt, cacti and wildlife occupied the area where the Neta and Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl currently sits. John Wristen, a coach at the University of California-Los Angeles, desired the head coaching spot for the revamped football program at his alma mater.
A to-the-point phone call confirmed Wristen would trade the UCLA blue and gold to take the reins of the red, white and blue of the ThunderWolves. The former USC quarterback had an opportunity to lead his team and adopted city of Pueblo to a place it had never been—a collegiate football championship game.
That goal was obtained. And then some.
Thirty years after USC’s final game, CSU-Pueblo played in the final game of the Division-II football season and flourished. 13-0, ThunderWolves prevailed. The first ever champions from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. CSU-Pueblo’s first national title for football. Just what Coach Wristen pictured when he took the job eight years ago.
The ThunderWolves finally overcame the hump to sit atop Division-II football.
The championship trophy and biggest victory in Pueblo history restored a presence missing from the town for decades.
“This is amazing for the community as a whole,” Director of Alumni Relations at CSU-Pueblo Tracy Samora said. “This puts Pueblo in the national spotlight and shows what sense of family and pride we take in everything here.”
CSU-Pueblo swiftly went from start-up program to powerhouse and garnished TV time during its rise.
The ThunderWolves secured a deal with Altitude Sports, a network that broadcast in more than 6.5 million homes across the Rocky Mountains, which allows for more exposure for the school and its players. CSU-Pueblo’s final four and championship games were broadcasted on ESPN U and ESPN2, respectively.
Former Pack players Ryan Jensen and Mike Pennel secured spots on NFL rosters without the mass media exposure CSU-Pueblo currently enjoys. Giving this championship roster as well as future prospects that attention bodes well for building a possible career out of football.
The success of the program doesn’t just affect players and their future, however, it provides more customers to local and chain businesses in town. More wins. More butts in seats.
Hotels receive more bookings from alumni and family of players making the journey to see winning football. Chain restaurants see huge turnouts after games and local businesses benefit from the flood of fans coming from the ThunderBowl, also.
The struggling enrollment and financial situation of the school could improve upon the national title. Future students have the opportunity to enjoy the peace of a small town and still enjoy the perks of a college student.
“From my perspective, I think this will definitely boost enrollment,” Samora said. “I think it’ll have an impact on the enrollment and the alumni involvement as well.”
Monetary value cannot measure the significance of this title to the city of Pueblo. Winning builds a sense of pride stronger than ever before. It illustrates Pueblo football isn’t acceptable at football, it is exceptional.
After a high school state title for Pueblo East in November, December’s title game victory for the ThunderWolves, Pueblo is on the map. And there’s a nice little football to indicate that location.
“This puts us in the national spotlight,” Samora said. “It showcases not only our successful athletics program but also our academics.”
The potential for this program still has no ceiling and the future for ThunderWolf football is as bright as it has ever been. When the players and coaches hoisted the championship trophy in triumph, the spirit of Pueblo rose with it.
The slogan of the ThunderWolves’ players was “Win the last game” and the motto for the team was “Unfinished business.”