Welcome to the moment that will define your legacy, Eddie Nuñez.
Funny, who would think that hiring a football coach at a “basketball school” would have that kind of power? Oh, but it is so very important. Even though people think “basketball” when talking about athletics at the University of New Mexico, it’s football that is the driving force. Nuñez, UNM’s athletic director, knows that — or he should.
Make no mistake: A good football program is the sign of a good athletic department. Could UNM have gotten Steve Alford as its men’s basketball coach if not for the success of Rocky Long? And is it coincidence that Dave Bliss’ fortunes rose when Dennis Franchione helped bring the football program from the ashes to respectability?
Maybe, but for all that basketball brings to the table — and it is the university’s premier athletic program — it alone cannot carry the financial burden for athletics.
That is why football is so important to UNM.
That is why this hire has to be a home run at best, a double in the gap at worst.
To be fair, the football program is not as bad as the 2-9 (soon to be 2-10?) record indicates, but that doesn’t mean the Lobos will suddenly become Mountain West Conference contenders with a good hire. The key to success is not in instant gratification. As Franchione said about taking over at UNM in 1992 after a five-year run of 9-50 under Mike Sheppard, this is a marathon, not a race.
In fact, there are marked similarities between the football programs of that era and the one Bob Davie leaves behind after a 35-63 record in his eight-year tenure. In both instances, the Lobos tried to latch on to the “pass-happy,” electric craze of wide-open offenses — Davie’s flirtation with the spread; Sheppard’s attempts at installing the run and shoot offense — and failed miserably.
Davie has made it clear that the overall football budget is lacking, especially when it comes to the training table meals that are so readily available at more successful programs. It was much the same way when Sheppard was here, but insert “facilities” instead, which were laughable. And the overall budget was an issue as well.
Changes came about toward the end of the Sheppard era as UNM invested more in football and built the Tow Diehm Athletics Facility. By the 21st century, the school enclosed the north end of what is now Dreamstyle Stadium, and under the guidance of Long, the Lobos had their greatest sustained run of success from 2001-07 during which they had just one losing season and played in five bowl games.
Oh, and the stands consistently had 30,000 actual people occupying them — not the ghosts of announced crowds of 13,000.
In this instance, the biggest obstacle the school has to overcome is an indifferent community that no longer sees UNM football and basketball as must-see attractions. Winning cures a lot, but even engaging the community can help navigate the choppy waters of a disappointing season or two. During Davie’s career, he matched Lobo fans’ indifference with his own apathy toward them. Davie made occasional forays into the public setting, but he seemed more interested in talking about his days at Notre Dame and Texas A&M than about building his own legacy at New Mexico.
The next coach better be ready to talk about what he wants to see in 2030, as opposed to talking about what he saw in 2000.
Davie made a good point in how poorly his teams were marketed, and it has been clear over the last decade that UNM’s attempts at selling the football and basketball programs to the community were clumsy at best, and negligent at worst. This isn’t the 1990s, when the school didn’t have to sell the community on athletics and fans were willing to show up.
Whoever walks through that door in the next couple of weeks has to galvanize the public into action, but he also needs administrators and staff members who can match that enthusiasm — and it’s badly needed. Most of all, UNM needs a little dose of what Peter Trevisani cultivated with the expansion New Mexico United soccer club.
The owner and his staff worked hard at community outreach and made the players a presence in Albuquerque and beyond. There is something to be said about making a community feel like its as important as the team. That the United consistently outdrew Lobos football and even basketball says volumes about where the Cherry-and-Silver stands in Albuquerque.
The United value their fans, but UNM forgot about them a long time ago.
Faced with a decision that will have a long-reaching impact, Nuñez has to find a way to make the citizens of Albuquerque — and UNM fans, to be exact — feel like they matter again.
If he succeeds, people will hail him as the man who saved UNM athletics. If he fails, the path to relevancy will be lost for years, if not forever.
Hey, it’s just a legacy, right?
James Barron writes an opinion column about sports in New Mexico. Contact Barron at 505-986-3045 or firstname.lastname@example.org.