In scrolling through your favorite websites this week, you’ve probably wondered where the University of New Mexico’s place is in all this conference realignment stuff.
Sorry UNM, your ship sailed a generation ago, and it probably just gets worse from here. While you spent years twisting in the wind of college football irrelevance, the rich got super rich and you, well, you’ve managed to tread water in a way that told everyone that football was largely an afterthought for this state’s flagship school.
You settled for a handful of fun seasons that produced big crowds, bowl games and pro prospects — but years of neglect have turned you into appetizers for the rich and, now, potential organ donors for those with deeper pockets and fancier surroundings.
Right around the time Paul Allen and Bill Gates uprooted their fledgling Albuquerque Microsoft business in 1979 and shipped it to the Pacific Northwest, UNM lost its shot at prioritizing football and casting the lure every Power 5 conference looks for when expanding its horizons.
If UNM had committed itself to football, constructed a cathedral befitting its desires and threw stacks of cash at coaches and recruiting, perhaps the idea of fans and businesses rallying around a program wouldn’t seem like a far-fetched fantasy. Instead, the school put its weight behind basketball and basked in the glory of hosting a Final Four, reveling in the idea of a dirt-cheap arena attracting sellout crowds on a regular basis.
Nothing wrong with that.
Lobos hoops sustained the state for the better part of half a century, launching countless memories for people who grew up rooting for the Lobos. Football clearly foundered, choking on years’ worth of suffocating budgets, inattentive crowds and little hope of change.
Football, as we know, drives the college sports engine, and being good at it simply isn’t enough to be part of the big time these days. It needs to be more than wins; it has to be marketability, sustainability and the promise of unlimited growth. Your program’s image has to bring a spark to the conference, and your stadium has to make jaws drop.
It’s a big reason why basketball schools such as Kansas and Baylor suddenly find themselves dangling on the edge of mid-major life. It’s why schools such as Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU — each of whom have facilities that would instantly be crown jewels in the Mountain West — are hoping for invites from the Pac-12 or for a way to pillage the AAC or Mountain West and salvage a scaled-down Big 12.
While there’s still time for the leftovers of the crumbling Big 12 to pull things together and find a soft landing, the thought in the mind of every UNM fan is where the cherry and silver fits in.
It’s Mountain West or bust for the Lobos. It’s a perpetual existence of annual distributions of $4 million to $5 million from a conference on regional TV, not $30 million from a Power 5 on a national network.
Then there’s a subject Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales touched upon Tuesday: Unethical recruiting practices are as big a threat to the New Mexicos of the world as anything else.
The NCAA allows athletes to make a one-time transfer without sitting out a year. Players can enter their names into the transfer portal, and coaches from other schools can literally pluck a team’s best players right off campus, no questions asked.
That stud QB from Arizona or the two-star linebacker who suddenly grows into a monster? Sooner or later, someone from a Power 5 program will be drooling at the gates, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Go back to spring when New Mexico Highlands coach Josh Kirkland unveiled a dramatically improved Cowboys roster in what was a one-game season for the Cowboys. His roster included more than two dozen Division I transfers, players who looked weirdly out of place in Las Vegas, N.M.
Kirkland, in what seemed like a bizarre move of paranoia (but now makes complete sense) didn’t provide rosters to fans or media.
“I don’t want other schools finding out about these guys,” Kirkland said at the time. “They’d be gone tomorrow if anyone knew.”
He was right, of course.
Then again, it doesn’t really matter. Do what TCU did, what Colorado State did, what San Diego State is doing now — build yourself a fancy new stadium in hopes of making the big time. Maybe someone will swoop in and offer you a spot in a superconference.
If not, UNM and the rest of the Mountain West will be here waiting with open arms.