Todd Dayton, quite simply, IS Cokeville football.
Most people, including everyone who’s come through the Panther football program in the past three-plus decades, would have trouble envisioning the Panthers without Dayton in charge.
But is it possible that Dayton’s success — and, conversely, Cokeville’s rise as a dynasty spanning multiple decades — could have belonged to another program?
Chances are extremely good that Dayton never wanted any other coaching job other than the one he has now. The Cokeville ties are strong in the Dayton family, and the two are synonymous now. A Cokeville native who was 28 when he took over the Panther program, Dayton took over the program in 1980 and has since piled up an impressive resume — he’s coached more victories (272), more state championships (18) and more games (323) than any coach in state history, and his winning percentage of .842 (272-51) is the highest mark among Wyoming coaches with more than 50 victories. The only record he doesn’t have is total seasons; with 33 seasons coached (2013 is his 34th), Dayton is second only to John E. Deti, who coached 35 seasons (33 in Laramie and one each in Shoshoni and Meeteetse) and held every major coaching record in the state before Dayton came along.
However, consider this: In all, 19 Wyoming high school football programs hired new football coaches prior to the 1980 season. Some worked out well; some didn’t. Every single one of those 19 schools had the chance to hire Dayton. Only one of those 19 schools has won 18 state championships since 1980.
What’s amazing is that several southwestern schools (Evanston, Mountain View, Lyman and Cokeville’s south Lincoln County rival Kemmerer) also hired head coaches prior to 1980. How might Wyoming’s coaching landscape worked out differently if Dayton had decided to stay CLOSE to home rather than to stay AT home?
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but to help put Dayton’s coaching career in perspective, let’s take a look at how the other 18 head coaching changes prior to the 1980 season worked out:
Burns: Hired Doug Samuels to replace Bob Brewington. Samuels lasted one year and went 2-5.
Evanston: Hired Kay Fackrell, who at the time was head coach in Lyman, to replace Larry Sanich. Fackrell became the winningest coach in Evanston history, going 92-65 in 18 years with the Red Devils, and won two state championships, including one in his final year of 1997. Fackrell remained Evanston’s AD for several more years after stepping down from the head football position.
Gillette: Hired Jim Galt to replace Jim Bujol. Galt went 7-11 in two years with the Camels.
Greybull: Hired Rick Case to take over for Mike Loose, who left to coach at Pine Bluffs. Case had the misfortune of bad timing, taking over a team in the midst of a horrendous losing streak, and he went 0-23 in his three years as head coach in Greybull.
Hulett: Hired Steve Bollenbach to replace Arlan Cloutier. Bollenbach went 0-7 in his only year with Hulett; the Red Devils played a JV schedule in 1981 and didn’t field a team in 1982. Bollenbach was at Hulett for several years as the wrestling coach, though.
Jackson: Hired Fred Staehr to take the place of Don Wadsworth. Staehr went 5-2 but only stayed one year in Jackson. He was the third in a string of years in which Jackson had four head coaches in four years (Lynn Williams in 1978, Wadsworth in 1979, Staehr in 1980 and Jim Rooks in 1981). Staehr wasn’t stopping over in Jackson, though; he was a teacher in the district for four decades.
Kemmerer: Hired Bob Bramlet away from Lingle to take over for Jim Keen, who left for Powell. Bramlet went 39-26 in eight years with the Rangers and went 3-2 against Cokeville and coach Dayton.
Lingle: Hired Roger Fuss for a second stint as coach after Bob Bramlet left for Kemmerer. Fuss was Lingle’s coach from 1970-74, going 20-22, and went 20-11 from 1980-83 in his four-year return stint; he’s tied for the lead with Ron Halley for being Lingle’s all-time winningest coach.
Lyman: Hired John Haning to take over for Kay Fackrell after Fackrell left for Evanston. Haning went 28-23 in six years with Lyman, including a state championship in 1982, but went 2-4 against Cokeville and coach Dayton. He later coached in Utah and is now the principal at Northridge High in Layton.
Moorcroft: Hired Carl Mirich to take over for Charles Cowan. This one worked out well, too: Mirich became by far Moorcroft’s winningest coach, going 110-83 in 23 years with the Wolves, including a state championship in 1996.
Mountain View: Hired Robert Thrasher to take over for Duane Franke. Thrasher was 0-7 in his only year as head coach; his last game was a 47-0 loss to Dayton’s Panthers.
North Big Horn: Made Michael Neville co-head coach with Steve Hutchinson, who was the sole head coach in 1979. The duo went 4-3 before the program reverted to one head coach in 1981 — and it was Gerry Christiansen, not Neville or Hutchinson, who took over as the top man after the one year of co-coaching.
Pine Bluffs: Hired Mike Loose from Greybull to replace Keith Kyser. Loose went 12-17 in four years with the Hornets.
Powell: Hired Jim Keen from Kemmerer to take over for Tom Shoemaker. Keen went 2-15 in two years with the Panthers; he later took over as head coach at Cheyenne East and later coached with his son Aaron in the college ranks.
Rawlins: Hired Bill Murray to take over for Al Morgan. Murray went 37-28 in seven years as head coach, including AA/4A runner-up finishes in 1982 and 1986. Murray was nearly as successful as Dayton in the long run, though, notching 207 victories in his career, most in Michigan.
Riverton: Hired Bob Miller to take over for Ken Boatwright. Miller was 3-6 in his only year with the Wolverines. Riverton had five head coaches in five years — Brent Engleright in 1977, Neil Mellilo in 1978, Boatwright in 1979, Miller in 1980 and Leland Smith in 1981.
Thermopolis: Hired Wayne Ward to take over for Bob Million. Ward went 8-32 in five years with the Bobcats but was a longtime teacher and coach in Thermopolis.
Wind River: Hired Chuck Gomendi to take over for Keith Mills. Gomendi had been coach in 1977-78 and Mills was coach for just one year in 1979. Gomendi returned in 1980 and led the team through 1983, going 14-28 in his six years total. Gomendi spend numerous years in the Wind River district coaching various sports.
(The University of Wyoming also had a new coach in 1980: Pat Dye. He only stayed a year in Laramie. Remember that? Yeah, me neither.)
It’s not fair to say each one of these schools had an equal chance of hiring Dayton, or that Dayton even considered any of them. But of all the coaching hires prior to the 1980 season — and, let’s face it, of all coaching hires in the state, ever — Dayton’s was by far the one that worked the best. Sort of makes you wonder how the 2013 hires will work out in 33 years….