It’s safe to say that this isn’t exactly what he signed up for.
But he’ll take it.
Hired three years ago to become the 13th athletic director at the University of New Mexico, Eddie Nuñez has experienced more in his 37 months as the Lobos’ sports boss than he could have ever bargained for.
Let’s count the ways:
u He inherited an athletic department awash in crisis; his predecessor, Paul Krebs, was under investigation for misuse of public funds and the department’s accounting practices were facing an exhaustive audit that would reveal mismanagement on levels Nuñez never anticipated.
u Just six months after his hire, Nuñez issued a 30-day suspension to then-football coach Bob Davie following a lengthy internal investigation into his detrimental conduct to the team and university.
u Facing steep financial cuts, Nunez and UNM President Garnett Stokes pulled the trigger on a controversial decision to eliminate men’s soccer, skiing, beach volleyball and the women’s diving team, the last of which was retained by the board of regents.
u Home attendance at men’s basketball has dipped to all-time lows since The Pit opened and attendance at football games has steadily declined every year during his tenure, bottoming out with last season’s home finale when fewer than 2,000 fans were in the stadium at kickoff.
u He made a major coaching change, firing Davie and hiring Danny Gonzales, plus he has dealt with real-life crises such as the untimely death of football player Nahje Flowers and basketball recruit Fedonta “JB” White, as well as negotiated a risky 10-year multimedia rights deal that could, potentially, be either an economic boom or bust.
u At long last, there’s COVID-19, a global health phenomenon that has thrown a proverbial grenade into the college sports landscape.
As bad as the pandemic has been, it’s not the worst thing the 45-year-old Miami native has faced in a career that has taken him from Vanderbilt to LSU to the high desert. All things considered, that’s saying something. He spent 13 years at LSU, his time intersecting with the final years as Nick Saban as the football coach and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“You know, those were difficult, and seeing what came with those natural disasters were challenging for us because we had student-athletes that were from areas that were significantly affected,” Nuñez said.
But coronavirus? It’s down on the list compared to his No. 1 stresser.
“Still, one of the hardest by far is having to make the recommendation to cut the sports,” Nuñez said.
He and Stokes took most of the heat for cutting the university’s beloved men’s soccer program. Stokes had only been on the job for three months while Nuñez hadn’t even gotten to through his first year.
Stokes lauded Nuñez’s leadership throughout the process despite enormous backlash from the public in a last-ditch effort to save the programs. In the end, it had everything to do with meeting the bottom line in a department bloated with debt, overspending and too many mouths to feed.
Nuñez still hears the complaints.
“That’s something that I’ll never forget, you know, and it’s an unfortunate situation,” he said. “It was hard.”
In a very real sense, the pandemic has had an even bigger impact. The forced shutdown has created uncertainty and changed the way the athletic department conducts business. There have been no layoffs, but the belt tightening is certainly real.
Nuñez said the Mountain West Conference’s decision to reverse course and lift its suspension of football comes at a time when the university and conference need a glimmer of normalcy. It doesn’t hurt that the TV revenue generated by the league’s new broadcast partnership with Fox and CBS will infuse the department with much-needed revenue.
It comes after months of uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of March Madness, canceled spring sports, ceased activity over the summer impacted every sport this semester.
Just before it hit, UNM was riding high, thanks to the public relations boost from the of hiring Gonzales. It came just as academic achievements across the board were as high as ever, at a time when the fog finally appeared to be lifting from the financial nightmare of past years.
“I will tell you this experience, though, that we’re all going through right now has been as challenging in other ways because there was a lot of hope,” Nuñez said. “The momentum in the spring for our department was extremely high. We had a lot of positive things going into the spring, certain sports were really getting revved up for their seasons.”
Learning to get by and remain positive has been a driving force for Nuñez. He has spearheaded his department’s social awareness initiatives and helped keep the public engaged in a time when keeping a healthy distance has become part of the daily routine.
It’s all just part of navigating life in a weird, uncharted time.
“To see it stop and not know if any of it was coming back has been extremely hard,” Nuñez said. “But as far as it [being] more challenging than one of the others, it’s a different challenge. I mean, it’s the business that we’re in. We have to find ways around things, from the budget challenges to getting our kids out there, we want to do it.”