Big Sky Figures to Remember - Skyline Era

“Big Sky figures worth remembering” – James Cowser, Southern Utah


At Skyline Sports, we love the stories and characters that emerge from one of the most authentic conferences in the West. The Big Sky Conference is steeped in history and heroes, holding a mystique that is unique to a conference featuring as many rural yet state-funded institutions in the United States.

One of our primary goals at Skyline Sports is the archiving of history across the state of Montana and across the Big Sky. In an effort to make sure we never forget some of the most pivotal and influential figures in the 58-year history of the league, we are introducing a quick-hitting series about those who once graced the Big Sky.

We will touch on players we’ve been able to cover (particularly in photograph) during our seven years covering the league as an entity (categorized as “Skyline Era”. We will also remember players from Colter Nuanez’s first seven years covering the league (2006-2013) during his time working in newspapers and magazines (categorized as Modern Era).

And we will also chronicle memorable figures from before we covered the league professionally, before we watched the league at all or even from before we were born thanks to the help of our great friends and colleagues from across the Big Sky (categorized as “Archived Era”).

Please enjoy “Big Sky Conference figures worth remembering”

The Character

James Cowser, Southern Utah defensive end and the Big Sky Conference’s all-time leader in sacks and tackles for loss. Cowser is also the all-time leader in each category in the history of the FCS.

During his career at Southern Utah, his time coincided with the greatest run of Southern Utah’s Big Sky era. Cowser earned All-Big Sky honors during SUU’s first run to the FCS playoffs in 2013. He repeated those honors in 2014 during a down year. And during his senior year in 2015, he helped lead Southern Utah to its first run to a Big Sky Conference championship in program history while earning the second All-American nod of his career.

The Measurables

The 29-year-old participated in the 2016 NFL Combine where he measured in at 6-foot-3 1/4 and 248 pounds.

During the NFL Combine, Cowser’s marks were:

EventEvent Score% By DE% By Size
Weight248 lbs10.4
Hand Size10.25″76.383
Arm Length32.88″30.446.9
40 Yd4.82 sec66.440.8
20 Yd2.82 sec5637.9
10 Yd1.68 sec63.244.7
Bench21 reps36.552.4
Broad Jump111″34.425.3
Shuttle4.31 sec80.262.6
3 Cone6.80 sec99.395.1
60yd Shuttle(N/A) sec

The Landscape

Southern Utah joined the Big Sky Conference as a full member institution in 2012. At that exactly moment, Montana’s unprecedented run (17 straight playoff appearances, 12 straight league titles) had just hit its first speed bump in a generation as the Griz suffered their first losing season since 1985. And Montana State was on the rise.

Southern Utah defensive end James Cowser (53) celebrates a sack, which broke the Big Sky Conference tackles for loss record/by Brooks Nuanez

The league added SUU, Cal Poly, North Dakota and UC Davis (AKA the former Great West Conference) eight years ago. Andre Broadus and Cal Poly’s vaunted triple option helped the Mustangs share the league title with Montana State (MSU’s third straight title) and Eastern Washington in the first of what would become five Big Sky crowns in nine seasons under Beau Baldwin for EWU.

In 2013, Southern Utah earned its first-ever FCS playoff berth. SUU moved to the FCS as an independent in 1996, where the Thunderbirds stayed until 2004 (until 2011) as a part of the Great West. The signature win during that season came in Bozeman when Cowser had one of SUU’s sacks and the Thunderbirds toppled DeNarius McGhee and the reigning champion MSU Bobcats in Bozeman, 22-14.

That loss was the second during a three-game losing streak to end that season during the senior seasons for McGhee and his other historically great Bobcat teammates like Buch Buchanan Award winning defensive end Brad Daly along with record-setting skill players like Cody Kirk (RB) and Tanner Bleskin (WR).

In 2014, SUU took a dip but in 2015, came back to post Lamb’s best year at the helm. Cowser had 13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a senior. He set the Big Sky all-time record for tackles for loss in a single season with 29 in 2014. And in each his sophomore and junior seasons, Cowser piled up 11.5 sacks, helping him overtake former Idaho State and current NFL Hall of Fame semifinalist Jared Allen as the Big Sky and FCS sack king.

The Accolades

Cowser earned All-Big Sky honors three times, including first-team honors as a junior and a senior. He was an All-American his sophomore and senior years while also earning Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2015. He also earned various academic All-Big Sky and academic All-American honors.

The Press


Ed Lamb

Ed Lamb on Cowser’s sack record:

“He’s amazing,” Southern Utah eighth-year head coach Ed Lamb told Skyline Sports in 2015. “Coaching football is just so humbling for me because when we do poorly, I take such a huge piece of that on my shoulders and I feel like I let the guys down. When we do well, the plays that the players make just stand out. We don’t teach guys necessarily to get a tackle for a loss or a strip sack. We just teach them about gap control and where their eyes should be. So to see a guy like James that has so consistently made plays is almost unbelievable.”

Lamb on Cowser’s work ethic

“In my time in coaching college football and playing college football which is a little more than 20 years now, from a daily work perspective, the way he prepares and the self-motivation he brings on a daily basis in all aspects of his life is the single best I’ve ever seen. I’d be surprised if there are too many players with the maturity and the discipline and the preparation level James Cowser has at any school in the country.”

SUU defensive line coach Ryan Hunt

“His attention to detail is tremendous. He can coach himself. He knows the mistake before I can even interject. He’s watched so much film and he’s such a student of the game, he knows exactly when his steps or hands weren’t right.

“Coaches say they don’t play favorites and all that but he’s my favorite guy I’ve ever coached. I confide in him and ask him what he wants to do. I rely on him heavily. He’s basically an assistant amongst the coaches. He has so much credibility with the other players and the coaches on staff.”

Souther Utah defensive back LeShaun Sims/ by Brooks Nuanez

Cincinatti Bengals and former SUU CB LeShaun Sims

“His work ethic is ridiculous. He stays after practice all the time and runs gassers by himself. He lifts as hard as anyone. He’s always going so hard. He’s very passionate about football.”

SUU strength coach Jeff Butler

“I haven’t been around many athletes as talented as James Cowser but I certainly haven’t been around anyone with his work ethic. It’s a rare combination. Some guys rely on natural talent. Some guys rely on working hard. James is a rare combination of unreal talent and unreal work ethic.”

Total appearances in the Big Sky Record Book: 18, including –

  • Most tackles for loss in a single season, 28.5 in 2014
  • Most tackles for loss in a career, 80
  • Most sacks in a career, 42.5
  • Tackles for loss in a game, third, 5.5 in 2014
  • All-American, 2014 and 2015

Why you should remember

Cowser’s leadership and production helped SUU establish itself as a real playoff contender — the Thunderbirds made the playoffs in 2017 as co-Big Sky champions as well after Cowser’s graduation and Lamb’s departure — early during the program’s participation in the Big Sky.

Now Southern Utah is on its way out. SUU will join the Western Athletic Conference in 2022.

That means Cowser and his Big Sky championship-winning teammates are among the last relics of the team that spent the second-least time in the history of the conference. Only UND — left after the 2018 season to join the Missouri Valley — had a shorter stay in the Big Sky.

Cowser’s story of LDS missionary who lost a formidable amount of weight only to blossom into one the great edge rushers in league history and one of the Big Sky’s most diligent workers of the last decade is a story that will not soon be forgotten.

James Cowser
Former SUU defensive end James Cowser/by SUU Media Relations

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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