Dave Walsh: Remembering Wyoming’s First Football Game Under the Lights

Columnist Dave Walsh writes: "1988 was a magical season for the Cowboys, one in which the Pokes would win a record 11 games. And still, some 34 years later, and after 125 years of Cowboy football, it holds the Wyoming record for most wins in a single season."

Dave Walsh

May 12, 20225 min read

Dave walsh Uw
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame will induct its 29th class this fall. And like the twenty-eight classes before, this list of inductees is a veritable “who’s who” of Cowboy and Cowgirl sports. 

The 2022 UW Hall of Fame class includes six individuals and one team. A Cowboy basketball star from the 1930’s, Les Witte, former Cowboy Cross Country star, Wayne Jensen, and 27-year Cowboy Basketball Office Administrator Mary Johnson, will be enshrined. Wyoming native and two-sport Cowgirl performer Erin Kirby and Cowboy football players Walter Goffigan and Grant Salisbury round out the list of individual inductees. 

And the team, “oh the team” — the 1988 Wyoming Cowboy football team.

First of all, it’s hard for me to imagine that this will be the 29th Hall of Fame class! I happened to be a member of the very first Hall of Fame selection committee back in 1993.

The UW Hall of Fame was the brainchild of and was created by Wyoming Athletic Director Paul Roach. Roach was in his seventh year as the AD, it was the 100th anniversary of Wyoming Football and the very-successful former head football coach had put together a group of people to select that very first class. I was honored to be a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee for 19 years.

What a class this 2022 Hall of Fame class is! And what a team this Hall of Fame team is!

I’ve been around long enough to witness and enjoy the talents and performances of four of the six individual inductees. And it was my honor to experience and broadcast each and every game the 1988 Cowboys played.

It was a magical season for the Cowboys, one in which the Pokes would win a record 11 games! And still, some 34 years later, and after 125 years of Cowboy football, it holds the Wyoming record for most wins in a single season.

Everyone knew after the very first game of the 1988 season that this could very well be another special year in the offing for Cowboy football.

Not many were so sure before the season began. Even though the Cowboys had gone a perfect 8-0 in Western Athletic Conference play and had won the Conference Championship outright in 1987, Wyoming was picked to finish in the middle of the Mountain West Conference pack in 1988. But, again, the first game of the 1988 season hinted at a very different scenario.

All “season openers” are important. Home openers are big. Add to that the fact that the opponent is a major conference rival and you’ve got the trifecta of big-time openers. The Cowboys had all of that, and more, for their first game in 1988. 

Wyoming would face the BYU Cougars in their home and season opener at War Memorial Stadium. It was BYU that had been named the pre-season conference favorite just weeks before.

This season opener got the interest of a major television network, which would televise the game, but only if it could be played and aired in an evening timeslot. They wanted a night game, and they wanted the game to kickoff at 8:15 pm, Mountain Time. And that demand would set the stage for a great game and a historic one, as well.

The first night game to ever be played in War Memorial Stadium would take place on Thursday, Sept. 1 1988. Many believe it to be the first Cowboy football night game ever played in Laramie, but there are veteran Cowboy fans who claim there was a game played in the 1930’s on the field that was located just south of where the Fieldhouse is today.

The game got started a bit late in the afternoon, and it got dark in the fourth quarter. The story goes that those fans who drove to the game lined their vehicles, side-by-side, along each sideline, and turned on their headlights. The game concluded “under the lights”, so to speak.

That Cowboy 1988 season opener is “officially” the very first Wyoming home game played “under the lights.” And since War Memorial Stadium did not have lights, they had to be brought in. Musco Lighting was a company that supplied portable, crane-operated, banks of stadium lights to venues in need.

So, the lights were wheeled in, the opening kickoff sailed into the 58-degree night air at 8:48 p.m., the game was played in a light breeze in front of almost 29,000 spectators and ended at 12:09 a.m., Friday, Sept. 2.

And what a game it was for the Cowboys. The Pokes scored first and the score was tied at one point during the second quarter, but the Cowboys would grab a 21-7 lead before halftime and never look back. 

The Cowboys were led by Hall of Famers Randy Welniak and Grant Salisbury on offense and Hall of Famers Mitch Donahue, Pat Rabold and Mike Schenbeck on defense. Cheyenne native and Cowboy defensive end, Dave Edeen, had five sacks.

The Cowboy defense would sack BYU quarterbacks Sean Covey and Ty Detmer a total of nine times, and the Cowboy defense would record seven takeaways, four interceptions and three fumbles. 

Meanwhile, the Wyoming offense, with Welniak at the controls, would roll up 300 yards of total offense. The Wizard of Ord accounted for 219 of those yards, with 172 yards passing and 47 rushing yards. Welniak would figure in all three Wyoming touchdowns, two passing and one rushing.

And the Cowboys beat BYU, 24-14, in that historic, nationally-televised and “well-lit” first-ever Wyoming home football game “under the lights.”

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Dave Walsh

Sports Columnist