It’s no secret that the engine that drives the college sports train is football.
From the richest of the rich (raise your hand, Alabama) to the poorest of the rich (howdy, New Mexico State), there’s money to be had in every corner of the sport. Google the finances of intercollegiate athletics. It’s true.
That’s exactly why NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia is more than willing to roll the dice keep the Aggies in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the college game’s proverbial penthouse. It’s a place of big-money TV deals and seven-figure body bag games against Power 5 programs.
It also brings the bonus of selling recruits on the glamor of an FBS scholarship, of playing for a school that dares to run with the big boys and stake out its own territory in a place reserved for giants.
Despite its banishment to the hinterlands of independent FBS ball, Moccia knows that life for the Aggies is better in the big-boy football ghetto than the high-rent district of the smaller neighborhood over yonder. The paychecks are bigger, the competition is significantly steeper and the exposure is off the charts.
On Thursday, Moccia was given the out he’d long been asking for. Seeking a stable conference for which his Aggies could find a home, he finally got one when the Western Athletic Conference announced it was bringing back football in 2021.
The invitation would have ended years of carpetbagging between places like the Missouri Valley Conference, the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, the Pac West, the Sun Belt (twice), the WAC (been there, done that), and two stints as an independent.
As he sat in a ballroom inside the Houston Texans’ massive stadium for Thursday’s WAC expansion press conference, Moccia and the rest of the WAC braintrust talked about the bright future ahead for everyone in the 13-team league. NMSU had long lobbied for such a thing.
The only problem was the WAC’s commitment to the Football Championship Subdivision, the sport’s second tier. With all due respect, NMSU wasn’t having it. The FCS represents a sizeable drop in every aspect; money, competition, recruiting and upward mobility.
Moccia isn’t (and never has been) interested in taking a football demotion, even if it comes with competitive balance and the very real dream of hoisting a conference championship trophy some day.
“I personally think once you go to FCS you’re not coming back,” he said. “We crossed this road a few years ago and we’re committed to FBS football.”
Aside from the money, Moccia said NMSU alums proudly measure their sums against rivals UNM and UTEP. If the Aggies were to voluntarily drop out of the picture, it would likely mean the end to football rivalries against both teams. In a day and age where traditions mean everything, that wasn’t happening.
But ... there is the money factor. Moccia has already wrapped up the 2021 schedule that includes road games at Alabama and Kentucky. There are dates with Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn and Northwestern, each of which is promising seven-figure paydays just for the right to kick sand in the Aggies’ faces.
It’s that money, on top of whatever multimedia rights agreements that come with them, that feeds the hungry mouths of so many other sports at NMSU.
Giving that up for the sake of exchanging years’ worth of 2-10 records for competitive balance against the likes of Abilene Christian, Lamar, Southern Utah and Dixie State just wasn’t worth the effort in Moccia’s eyes.
And no one can blame him.