On Dec. 13, Colorado State University Pueblo’s longtime head coach John Wristen announced his retirement from coaching in front of a room of players, coaches, alumni, friends and family. Coach Wristen tried to hold back tears as the crowd gave him a roaring standing ovation.
The moment represented an interesting book-end to a press conference held July 3, 2007, announcing John Wristen as the first head coach of the newly restarted CSU Pueblo football program. The university had not offered football since 1984. They tasked Wristen, an alumnus, with the job of returning NCAA football to Pueblo.
“In education and coaching you never get a chance to start something from scratch,” Wristen said. “I remember looking myself in the mirror and saying ‘hey big boy, you only have one guy to blame and it’s the guy looking back at you.’”
Wristen had been coaching at UCLA under Karl Dorrell at the time. Wristen said, “I wanted to try to be a head coach, and what better way to do that than to be in Pueblo, Colorado, and do it at CSU Pueblo. I really hoped I would get a chance to interview and be a part of something special.”
He quit his job with the Bruins and was selected among over 100 applicants. The Thunderwolves were truly re-launching at the time.
“I remember we had no footballs, I really didn’t have an office on campus, no field and no helmets,” Wristen said. “When I started, my mindset was that this is going to be my last job, and hopefully it is my last job.”
For the first year on the job, CSU Pueblo was setting its foundation. In 2007, ground was broken on the Thunderbowl, CSU Pueblo’s 6,500-seat home stadium. It was completed and ready for the first home game of the inaugural 2008 football season. As the stadium went up, Wristen went to work hiring coaches and bringing in players to build the program.
“We sold them on the opportunity,” Wristen said. “We told them if they wanted to stay and compete at a high level that we were going to go win a national championship. And that was before we even had a stadium.”
On September 6, 2008, the Pack hosted their first game against Oklahoma Panhandle State University. The Thunderwolves had joined Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference football and packed out the Thunderbowl. The Thunderbowl was sold out for the first game. CSU Pueblo was able to pull out a 24-13 win to open up Wristen’s tenure.
“Our kids played hard and gave it everything they could,” Wristen said. “We found a way to win that first game. I thought that was one of the most impressive wins we ever had.”
When talking about that first win, Wristen said, “It was really neat to give everyone a picture of what Pack football was going to be.”
Over the next few years, the Thunderwolves identity and Wristen’s coaching style began to emerge.
“Your attitude and work ethic are the two things you have control over,” Wristen said. “I kept emphasizing it and our kids bought into it.”
In 2008, the Thunderwolves went 4-6. The next year, they improved to 7-4, including winning their last four games. A key game that year was a visit to Chadron State University. The Eagles were the reigning conference champions, and had not lost an RMAC game since 2005. The Thunderwolves stunned them 28-17 in their building.
“Probably, our first big victory was against Chadron State,” Wristen said. “I remember in my first press conference in 2007… I remember saying we’re going after Chadron. They were the big boys on the block. We went up there and beat them.”
Following a strong 2009, the Pack took another step forward in 2010, finishing 9-2. They were on the cusp of a conference crown and playoff appearance.
One more win in 2010 would have put them over the edge, but CSU Pueblo lost 19-16 at Colorado Mines. The game was tight from the opening whistle, and ended up coming down to an offsides penalty against the Pack.
Wristen said, “I remember our kids feeling that hurt, us feeling that hurt. Being able to establish what that hurt felt like and how you’ve got to pay attention to the discipline of the details to be great, helped us moving forward.”
As 2011 came around, CSU Pueblo emerged as a truly great team. They went 11-0 in the regular season, clinching the playoffs for the first time since the program restart. They also won the RMAC Championship. The Thunderbowl hosted its first of many playoff games that winter.
From 2011 to 2013, the Pack went a staggering 33-0 in the regular season, earning an RMAC title each season. However, they went a combined 1-3 in the postseason between those teams.
“Complacency means entitlement,” Wristen said. “I try to stress from day one in our offseason that you’re not entitled to anything, you’re not entitled to any growth.”
On a routine trip to Fort Lewis in October 2014, the Thunderwolves were upset by the Skyhawks 23-22. This was the first regular season loss for CSU Pueblo in four years. However, the loss seemed to refocus the team for the stretch run. The Pack won out from there entering the playoffs 10-1 and won their fourth consecutive RMAC title. That team was marked by terrific veteran leadership, smart offense and a dynamic defense.
“2014 really had to have a lot of things happen,” Wristen said. “When you win a national championship you have to have a lot of luck. On our 2014 team, our schedule was right and our playoff matchups were right.”
Entering the 16-team playoff, CSU Pueblo’s first test was against Angelo State at home. The Pack passed that test with flying colors, with a 52-14 win. The Thunderwolves offense, defense and special teams contributed to the scoring.
The Thunderwolves then played host to Ohio Dominican. The game was a nail biter from the very beginning. With the Pack leading 24-21 with 10:52 left in the fourth quarter, Daniel Wise returned a punt for a touchdown providing the Thunderwolves just enough insurance to hold on to a 31-28 win.
Following that victory, West Georgia visited the Thunderbowl for a heavyweight semifinal game. Freshman Zach Boyd’s touchdown on a trick play with 9:47 to play proved to be the difference as the Thunderwolves won 10-7.
“That was a special game here in Pueblo, Colorado,” Wristen said. “That was a flat-out war with kids just laying it all out on the line and going to work. It was fun to see.”
The victory over the Wolves set the stage for the most important game in Thunderwolf history: a national championship game against Minnesota State-Mankato. Though, Coach Wristen was confident entering the game in Kansas City.
“I had played that scenario in my mind 10,000 times,” he said. “I knew we were going to go win that National Championship Game no matter who we played. We just needed to get there, that was the key.”
“I didn’t want to trip leading the team out for that championship game,” Wristen said.
Instead of stressing about the details, Wristen had a different focus, “I didn’t want to screw that game up for our kids. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted our kids to enjoy it. I tried to stress all week, take a moment to enjoy it because it will be a special moment for all of us.”
The Thunderwolf defense overwhelmed the Mavericks offense, who had scored 42.9 points per game entering the final game. Quarterback Chris Bonner found receiver Paul Browning for a touchdown to give CSU Pueblo a 10-0 halftime cushion. The Pack ran the ball and continued their dominant defense in the second half. Eventually Bonner took a knee, clinching a Thunderwolf win and the program’s first National Championship.
The Thunderwolves mobbed Coach Wristen and celebrated on the field. The players made snow angels in the confetti.
“I wanted to stand back, watch them, and enjoy it,” Wristen said. “ I wanted to let them take it all in. The smile on those kids’ faces was special.”
Just seven seasons after taking over the program from scratch, John Wristen’s Pack were champions. Following the magical run to the national title, Wristen was named 2014’s American Football Coaches Association Division II Coach of the Year.
The Thunderwolves continued their winning ways over the next five seasons, going 51-12, winning three more RMAC championships and making the playoffs three times. With a 106-17 (.862) record from 2010-2019, the CSU Pueblo football team was the second winningest NCAA Division II program of the decade.
“We had a damn good team with damn good coaches,” he said.
The world was plunged into the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and the Thunderwolves took the year off of football. This was a new challenge for Wristen. He spoke about the struggle of the year off.
“It really led to me making this kind of decision,” he said. “Covid had a lot to do with reflection, and whether I could do the job the way it needed to be done to carry on the tradition.”
The Thunderwolves got back on their feet after the pandemic with a 12-9 record over the 2021-2022 seasons. The Pack made the playoffs last year, but were beaten in the first round by the eventual champion, Colorado Mines.
John Wristen announced he would step away from coaching with an incredible resume. He finished with a 123-32 record, seven RMAC Championships, seven playoff appearances and six RMAC Coach of the Year awards. Most notably, he led the Thunderwolves to their first NCAA Division II Championship title in 2014.
“The way we spell fun around here is W-I-N,” Wristen said.
Despite the staggering on-field numbers, Wristen spoke more of his players.
“When the official announcement of my retirement from coaching came, I think I had 245 texts and over 20 phone calls from mostly former players,” Wristen said. “That was great, it was really cool and really humbling. All of it was ‘thank you.’ I get emotional on that because that’s what stirs the soul. They felt enough to validate me and say thank you. It meant a lot.”
The players Wristen brought in really made the difference, “We were able to find enough really good players who would check their egos at the door and would out-hustle and out-hit and make sure they have some fun doing it. I think we found a bunch of blue collar kids who wanted to do that.”
“I think we made Saturday afternoons in the fall an event,” Wristen said. Pueblo has been a major part of Wristen’s journey, “I’ve been entrenched in Pueblo, Colorado. I love the people of Pueblo and I value what it stands for. I’m lucky to be a citizen here in this city and I’m going to continue to represent that.”
After leading the football program at CSU Pueblo for 15 seasons, Wristen will now serve as the Athletics Development and External Relations Officer within the Athletic Department.
“I’m going to continue to develop relationships and help our university grow,” Wristen said. “I appreciate the university making this happen for me.”
Wristen had a role in the Thunderwolves choosing their next head coach, Phillip Vigil. Wristen sat on Vigil’s right as he conducted his first press conference just as Wristen did 16 years ago.
“I know Coach Vigil and his staff are going to take on the shield and make it shinier and carry it on better than it has ever been before,” Wristen said.
Listen to the full interview at voicesofpueblo.podbean.com
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c/o Pueblo Star Journal Fund,
303 S. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo CO 81003
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