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How a small-town coach created Wyoming’s biggest winner

Todd Dayton developed a system in Cokeville that produced the most high school football victories in the state’s history.

Former Cokeville football coach Todd Dayton stands underneath some of the championship banners in the Cokeville High School gymnasium on July 26, 2023. Dayton's teams won 20 state football championships in his 42 years as head coach of the Panthers. (Patrick Schmiedt)

Between the second and third times doctors shocked his heart, Todd Dayton looked at them and asked what they were doing.

The reply: “We’re saving your life.”

Just a year previous, to the week, Dayton’s high school football coaching career had come to an end. Wyoming’s most successful high school football coach, the leader of the Cokeville Panthers for 42 years, had earned more victories, more state championships and more undefeated seasons than any other coach in Wyoming history. The self-confessed control freak had turned tiny Cokeville into a powerhouse program alongside his assistant coach, Keith Nate.

At the end of the 2021 season, Dayton had finally relinquished control of the Panthers’ football program. Now, a year later, the same week that his former team was preparing for a first-round playoff game, Dayton’s doctors were fighting to save his life in an Idaho Falls hospital.

After the third round with the defibrillator, Dayton’s heart stabilized. The major heart attack he had just suffered happened at about the most opportune time and place — in a hospital, surrounded by doctors. He may not have made it otherwise. 

“I’m not a heart doctor, but I think the stress of him not coaching was a lot harder on him than the stress of coaching,” said Janet Dayton, his wife of more than 50 years. “He was very unhappy that fall. And he wouldn’t go to the games, he wouldn’t go to practice. … It was almost like a piece of him (was gone).”

As Dayton worked through his recovery, he looked to his best friend, Nate: the man who had been with him on the sidelines for 41 of those 42 years, who ran the Panthers’ defense with the same kind of intensity as Dayton ran the offense, who grew up on the same block in Cokeville, and whose own illness had persuaded Dayton to retire in the first place, even if Dayton himself wasn’t quite ready.

Sense of place

Dayton’s impact on Wyoming high school football is immeasurable — but the numbers definitely provide some context. Upon his retirement in 2021, his Cokeville teams had won 20 state championships, including 10 undefeated seasons. He retired with 345 career victories, a full 118 more than the second-place coach.

When Dayton decided to announce his departure, the football field where he had spent 42 years as head coach was renamed in his honor. 

The field dedication ceremony on Oct. 1, 2021, before a home game in Dayton’s final season, was a spectacle. Gov. Mark Gordon traveled to Cokeville, a town of 500 near the state’s western border, to proclaim his respect for Dayton and for “the greatest day for the greatest field in Wyoming.”

And when Panther Field was re-christened, the sign above the scoreboard bore not just Dayton’s name, but that of his longtime assistant, too. The Panthers now play on “Nate Dayton Field.”

Former Cokeville football coaches Todd Dayton, left, and Keith Nate stand under the sign for Nate Dayton Field, the high school football field, on July 26, 2023, in Cokeville. The field was renamed Nate Dayton Field in 2021 upon the coaches’ retirements, Dayton after 42 years as the head coach and Nate after 41 years as an assistant. (Patrick Schmiedt)

“Todd said the only way I’d let you do that is if you put Keith’s name first,” Janet Dayton said. “It was like he never wanted to be the boss. That wasn’t his personality.”

Together, Dayton and Nate — as well as assistant coach Briant Teichert, who was on staff for 30 years, and current head coach Marty Linford, who was on staff for more than 20 years before replacing Dayton as the head coach prior to the 2022 season — built Cokeville into a program that churned out championships. 

For Dayton, Nate and Teichert, they were able to do so in their hometowns.

And for Dayton and Nate, they did so with the person with whom their life had been intertwined since kindergarten. 

The similarities don’t end with their ages; after all, they were both members of the Class of 1970. But so were their wives, and when the couples meet, they’re almost a quarter of the way to a class reunion. They each started dating their eventual spouse — Todd to Janet Johns, Keith to Lynette Perkins — at the same time. They each got married in the summer of 1971, after their first years of college. Both had parents who were Cokeville High School graduates who married young. Both have family lines that go deep in the region. They share a faith, a love for elk hunting, andmemories tied to growing up together just a block away from each other — Nate’s childhood home on the corner of Main and Pearl, Dayton’s on the corner of Second and Sage, kitty-corner from Cokeville’s football field.

“Everything that happened to him happened to me, or everything that happened to me happened to him,” Dayton said. “Our lives are so entangled together.”

Together, they led Cokeville to its first state football championship as seniors in 1969, going 8-0 to win the mythical Class B championship to cap a football career in which they won 27 games and lost just three.

After high school, both pursued their athletic pursuits, Dayton to Dawson Community College in Glendive, Montana, to play basketball, Nate to the University of Wyoming to play football. Both careers lasted two years: Dayton’s ending with a transfer to UW, Nate’s ending with knee injuries.

After his football career, Nate moved to Utah, then to Idaho, working on a family ranch before becoming a brand inspector for the state of Wyoming. 

At the same time, Dayton was finishing college, graduating from UW in 1974, and beginning his coaching and teaching career in Kemmerer — the Wyoming high school closest to Cokeville. It was in Kemmerer where he found out just how fickle coaching can be, as he was fired as the Rangers’ head basketball coach after just two seasons. 

“There was a lot of heartache in Kemmerer,” Dayton said, “but I still have some great friends in Kemmerer, and students I taught. And they all say, ‘I can’t believe they let you get away.’”

Despite the frustration that came with coaching basketball, Dayton remained as an assistant on the Kemmerer football staff under head coach Vince Guinta. For six seasons, Guinta impressed on Dayton the importance of running the ball on offense and stopping the run on defense — an approach that later became the mainstay of the Panthers’ approach. 

In the summer of 1980, Dayton and his family returned to Cokeville. He became the head coach of both the football and the boys’ basketball teams. Even with a child on the way and a new job to prepare for, Dayton purchased a plot of land just off Highway 30 about 3 miles north of Cokeville and worked to have a home built, confident that his young family was ready to reset its roots. Dayton and his wife still live in the same house today. 

“We knew we were supposed to be here,” Dayton said.

Early on, it looked like basketball might be where Dayton would make his biggest mark — the Panthers won the state championship in his first season as head coach.

But while basketball remained a passion — Dayton won two more state championships and more than 400 games as Cokeville’s coach for 30 years, from 1980 to 2007, plus three more years from 2019 to 2021 — football became his obsession. 

The control freak could control more in football than in basketball, and that unique aspect of the game had its appeal. And although the Panthers reached the Class B state championship game in Dayton’s first season, he knew something was missing that could take Cokeville to the next level.

One day, Dayton took the drive north of town to meet Nate. Cokeville needed a new assistant football coach, and Dayton wanted Nate to apply. The conversation was quick. 

“He just showed up at the house one day and said, ‘Hey, I’d like you to help with football,” Nate said. “ … Little did I know how much fun it would be. It sounds simple, but that’s actually how it worked out.”

They worked the next 41 years together, building on Cokeville’s unique setting to create a program that won almost 83% of its games. 

Cokeville had to do things differently to separate itself from its competition. And understanding this requires understanding a bit of Wyoming geography.

Cokeville is tucked neatly into a valley of the Bear River in Wyoming’s southwest corner, closer to Montpelier, Idaho, than any Wyoming community. With a high school enrollment consistently between 60 and 90 students, a number that’s remained remarkably stable for nearly a century, Cokeville is the only Wyoming school of its size in the region. The closest competition comes from schools like Mountain View, Lyman, Big Piney, Pinedale or Kemmerer; those schools typically have double to triple the enrollment of Cokeville.

The Panthers had consistently played such schools as part of Class B football, the division for Wyoming’s smallest schools but that included schools up to 200 students, when Dayton was in high school and in the first couple years of his coaching in Cokeville. But in 1983, the Wyoming High School Activities Association created a Class 1A division of football for schools about the size of Cokeville. 

In the first four years of Class 1A football, the Panthers’ closest competition in the classification was in Meeteetse, 323 miles away. For many years, Cokeville was the only Class 1A football team in the southern half of the state.

So the Panthers did what they had always done, playing their bigger regional rivals during the regular season and usually going the entire regular season without playing another 1A team. By the time the 1A playoffs started, Cokeville had been prepared by playing those larger, more physical teams — and that made the playoffs, and championships, a much simpler task. 

“We really wanted to instill in our kids that it didn’t matter who you played,” Nate said. “You stepped out there and did your job. It didn’t matter who it was. … You’d go out there on the football field and you’d look down on the other end and you’d see 30, 40 kids, and we’re out here with 18 or 20 kids. I never wanted them to be intimidated (by that). I felt if they can do that, they could do that for the rest of their life. No matter what the problem, they can step into a problem and solve it just by knowing that they can play with those bigger kids.”

Todd Dayton, center, speaks at a community celebration for the Cokeville Panthers after the team won the 1983 Class 1A football championship. (Courtesy Todd and Janet Dayton)

With the constraints of geography forcing the construction of a resilient, physical team, the Panthers won the first Class 1A championship in 1983. Then they won it again in 1984. And 1986, 1987, 1988.

In 1989, Class 1A briefly became a nine-man division. Cokeville “opted up” to play Class 2A that season, competing against the teams they usually played in the regular season anyway; they went undefeated and won the state championship game by 46 points.

Then came titles in 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003 — in all, 16 championships in 21 years. Along the way, Dayton passed Laramie’s legendary John Deti Sr. as the coach with the most victories in state history. 

Attention to detail

The coaching philosophy Dayton and Nate brought to the Panthers was a result of the constraints Cokeville faced. Knowing that their team would rarely be the biggest or most physical, the Panthers focused on the three things they knew they could control: (1) preparation, (2) conditioning and (3) execution of fundamentals. 

Film study was a hallmark of a Cokeville team. Dayton said coaches began breaking down film as soon as Friday night after a Friday afternoon game and continued into Saturday. Sunday, as the Sabbath, was always kept clear, although Dayton did admit to an occasional 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. film session with coaches that would stretch between Sunday night and Monday morning. 

Then came practice. 

In Monday’s practice, players watched film with coaches, leaving the final 45 minutes aside for conditioning. Tuesday was another 45 minutes of film, plus “chalk talks” to implement that week’s game plan, with walk-throughs on the field after film. Wednesday was another bit of film, reinforcing the plan, and a full-pads practice in which Dayton typically lost his voice delivering instructions. Thursday was a light practice that would include special teams, but another 45 minutes of film. Then, on Fridays, the team would meet two hours before kickoff and potentially watch another hour of film before taking the field. 

Nate said the attention to detail was part of the philosophy to create winning teams. He put it simply: “Nobody outworked us.”

Conditioning was also a hallmark of Panther teams. With players who had to play both offense and defense, Cokeville had to be in better shape than teams that had significantly more players and could afford to rest players more.

Former Cokeville football coaches Todd Dayton, left, and Keith Nate stand under the scoreboard at Nate Dayton Field on July 26, 2023, in Cokeville. The field was renamed for the two coaches after their retirement in 2021. (Patrick Schmiedt)

“There was always a challenge and an expectation to just flat-out get after it,” said Brian Toomer, the quarterback for Cokeville’s first two championships in 1983 and 1984 and later the principal and a coach at Cokeville. “I think that consistency of a challenge was always around.”

Finally, consistency of the coaches allowed for consistent development of fundamentals. Dayton made a specific effort to hire assistant and junior high coaches who had been through the program with him as players. By the time players reached the high-school level, Dayton said, they didn’t have to spend remedial time with the basics of footwork or formations. 

Dayton’s oldest son Jerry, who’s now 48 and lives in Cokeville, was the Panthers’ quarterback for more than two seasons under his father’s eye. One of the mantras he heard often from the coaches: “Fundamentals will beat athleticism.” After all, athleticism changes from year to year; fundamentals don’t. 

Under Dayton, the Panthers had 244 first-team all-state selections, but that success rarely translated to the college level, where demands for athleticism are much higher. Even though his players consistently received all-state recognition, Dayton could count on his hands the number of college football players he coached in Cokeville.

Keith said that was by design. The coaches’ goal was never to create college football players; their goal was to create good husbands, fathers and people, and to create good friendships with those young men that go beyond the season.

Added Dayton’s youngest son, Scott, who’s 37 and lives in Cokeville, “He’s more worried about the person rather than the final goal. We’d finally get to those goals because he was focused on the people he was working with.”

Dayton maintained that with those three things — preparation, conditioning and fundamentals — he could take pretty much any high school boy in Cokeville and turn him into a good football player. Combined, they created the fourth element that Cokeville coaches learned they could control: tradition. 

Said Kenny Petersen, who graduated with Toomer as part of the Class of 1985: “That’s why it’s sustainable is because there’s a culture here and everybody buys into it. But a culture has to be developed. It doesn’t just come. … There are expectations once a culture is developed, and people are willing to go above and beyond what they would normally (do) to meet those expectations.”

In Cokeville, faith, industry, education and community all work in harmony under the same umbrella: family. 

Dayton, Nate and Teichert all served as bishops of the Cokeville ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, upholding responsibilities of spiritual leadership for several years at a time. 

Much of the professional opportunity in Cokeville is centered on agriculture, either farming or ranching, and many of the families who live in the area have ties to those industries. 

Noted Dayton, “Our parents taught our kids how to work, and that is so important if you’re gonna be successful in anything. You’ve got to know how to work.”

At the center of town, both literally and figuratively, is the high school. 

Dayton is quick to note that Cokeville breeds success in many other areas of the school, not just football. Music, cheerleading, theater: They are all points of pride for the community.

Game balls from two of Cokeville’s championship games rest next to a photo of former Panther player and coach Keith Nate in a trophy case in Cokeville High School on July 26, 2023. Nate was an all-America selection as a senior and later coached the Panthers as an assistant for 41 years. (Patrick Schmiedt)

Together, the community works to support those pillars, creating a situation many coaches would find enviable — a town with parents who support the coaches and their vision for growing and building not only a program but the people within it. Messages coaches give players on the practice field are reinforced at home, not contradicted. 

“They could see we were trying to do what was best for them, best for our kids,” Dayton said. “Big team, little me. We talked about that a lot.”’

Another truism of Cokeville: The teams were led by coaches whose competitiveness wouldn’t allow for any halfhearted effort.

“I know athletics are supposed to be fun … but I just never had fun when we lost,” Nate said. “That’s why [Dayton’s] preparation and everything was so good. He wouldn’t accept losing.”

‘My heart’s still in Cokeville’

The roots of Dayton’s competitive fire trace back to his parents. 

Bob and Louise (Thornock) Dayton were married on May 19, 1951, just one day after Louise’s high school graduation. Todd was born March 18, 1952, the oldest child and the only boy in a family that experienced its fair share of struggle. 

The Daytons were a ranching family, but the ranch was sold before Todd’s sixth-grade year. Bob had a few different jobs but eventually became Cokeville High School’s head custodian, while Louise became the head cook at CHS.

Both Bob Dayton and Todd’s sister Shauna, three years his junior, were among the last people in Wyoming to be stricken with polio. Bob lost much of the use of one of his arms, while Shauna spent much of her childhood in the children’s hospital in Salt Lake City and was confined to braces or a wheelchair for most of her life. Todd’s only other sibling, Julie, died the day after she was born, when Todd was 9.

By default, Todd was the outlet through which his parents could experience athletic glory. He responded by becoming a four-year starter on both the football and basketball teams — despite being only 5-foot-7 — and a Class B state champion sprinter in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes as a senior.

When Dayton returned to Cokeville as a coach, both of his parents became mainstays on the sidelines at Panther football games. Jerry Dayton said his grandma Louise was especially visible. 

“She’d have an orange and black blanket,” he recalled. “She would run up and down the sidelines, and she’d always yell, ‘Come to grandma!’”

Nate’s family also had roots in Cokeville and teenage love. His parents, Stanley and Fern, were also high school sweethearts; they ran away to nearby Randolph, Utah, in May of 1941 to get married, one day short of Fern’s 19th birthday, two years after her high school graduation and one year after Stanley’s. 

Keith was one of six children in the Nate family — three boys, three girls — and he was the second youngest. His family, too, was a ranching family, but that ended when his parents sold out in 1971, a year after Keith’s graduation.

Former Cokeville football coaches Keith Nate, left, and Todd Dayton stand just outside the end zone on Nate Dayton Field on July 26, 2023, in Cokeville. The duo recently retired after more than 40 years coaching together. (Patrick Schmiedt)

Though they didn’t see much of each other in the decade after their high-school graduation, they remained friends. When they paired up as coaches, the friendship grew closer, too. Their children all came at about the same time — three girls and two boys in each family. In between film study were church services, elk hunts, school plays and favors granted without any expectation of keeping a tally of who owed what to whom.

The relationship between Dayton and Nate changed about the time of that 16th championship, on an off day when Dayton joined Nate to help him move some furniture. While moving a television, Nate lost his grip and couldn’t regain it.

Dayton knew almost immediately that something wasn’t right. A couple doctor visits later, Nate’s wife Lynette came out to the Daytons’ house to share Keith’s diagnosis — multiple sclerosis. 

For the former college football player, a disorder that attacked his muscles and caused fatigue, balance and vision problems was about as devastating a diagnosis as possible. Only in his mid-40s, Nate was anticipating many healthy years ahead. That was gone. Now, both Dayton and Nate knew that the diagnosis would eventually end Nate’s coaching career. 

In Cokeville, their coaching duties had always been shared; the end would be no different. When Nate couldn’t handle the job physically anymore, Dayton told him, he would step down, too.

They were in it together. As Nate’s MS progressed, and as walking became harder and slower, Dayton arranged for a golf cart to take him to and from Cokeville’s practice field, which is about four blocks from the high school. For road games, Dayton reached out to opposing schools to ask for similar accommodations. 

“I’d just show up and everything was taken care of to help me out,” Nate said. “I didn’t have to wonder how I was going to get anywhere or what I was going to do. Whenever there was a need, he’d just take care of it.”

When the golf carts couldn’t carry the pair, Nate said, Dayton always made sure to walk beside his friend, never ahead, letting Nate choose the pace and the path. 

“I think [Todd] was very careful that he never, ever would do anything that would take [Keith’s] dignity away,” Janet Dayton said.

When it came time to retire, Nate again chose the pace and the path. 

Before the 2021 season, Dayton said, “I remember I went to him, and I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ … And he said, ‘I think this’ll be our last year.’ And we knew we were going to go out together. It wasn’t something that I had to think about. That’s just the way we were gonna do it. We were gonna do it together.”

The final season was memorable, what with the field dedication, another playoff berth and the program’s 34th consecutive winning season and an invite from the governor to join him at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, where Nate and Dayton traveled on the governor’s plane to Boise to watch Wyoming beat Kent State. 

Soon after the season, though, Nate and his wife moved to Rexburg, Idaho, to be closer to two of his children who live in that area. Regardless, “my heart’s still in Cokeville,” Nate said. 

Renewed focus

Dayton’s first signs of health trouble came on Oct. 24, when his left arm began to tingle while trying to corral loose cows on family land north of Cokeville. He worked through the discomfort, but after several hours, he finally admitted to his wife that something was wrong. Together, they went to the doctor the next morning. The doctor didn’t waste time — Dayton had suffered a heart attack. He was put into an ambulance and taken to Idaho Falls for follow-up. 

But, just like a small earthquake can be a sign of a bigger one to come, Dayton’s small heart attack was a harbinger. While in the hospital, the big one came. 

“All of a sudden, everything they had me hooked up to started ringing and ringing, and I had a major heart attack right there,” Dayton said. “I can remember them running me down the hall … and they’re saying, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry.’”

He was, as he put it, “clinically dead” three times. But the defibrillator worked as designed. Dayton’s heart regained its function, and soon after, so did Dayton. He was walking the day after his heart attack and spent only two nights in the hospital.

Former Cokeville football coach Todd Dayton, right, pleads his case with an unknown official during a game in Cokeville in this undated photo. (Courtesy Todd and Janet Dayton)

The irony of a heart attack happening the week of one of the few Cokeville playoff games without him on the sideline — Cokeville has played in 98 playoff games in school history, and Dayton was the coach for 91 of them — was not lost on him. 

“I coached football for 42 falls, and the first fall that I didn’t coach, I had a heart attack,” he said. “I think the good Lord has something in store for me. I need to find out what he wants me to do, and that’s what I’ve got to concentrate on the rest of my life, because I was pretty close to being gone.”

After the heart attack, Dayton found himself upset that it happened but grateful for both his survival and quick recovery. With five children and 25 grandchildren (19 boys, six girls) to watch grow, he has put a renewed focus on his family.

Moreover, he has shifted his focus to regaining what he has really missed in retirement — and it’s not coaching. It’s giving — the key to his success all along. 

“I’ve got to be helping someone or something the rest of my life. … I’ve got another chance to get it right,” he said.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.