ALBUQUERQUE — In what amounts to a never-ending quest to light the furnace that fuels the University of New Mexico’s football program, head coach Danny Gonzales said the arithmetic is actually pretty simple.
The first 15,000 to 20,000 Lobos fans are always going to be his team’s corner. Come rain or shine — or any other distraction fans tend to use for not buying a ticket — he knows he can always count on the people who love his team unconditionally.
It’s convincing the other 30,000 who take the wait and see approach to come along for the ride.
“Why not us?” Gonzales said during a 75-minute press conference with local media Wednesday at University Stadium. “Why not us? We could do something really special here. … We’ve got a core group of about 20,000 people that live and die for the New Mexico Lobos. We live in a community of almost 950,000 people.”
The Lobos open preseason camp Friday. A near-unanimous pick to finish last in their division, they are embracing the disrespected/overlooked mantra that perpetually hangs over them like a storm cloud.
A successful 2022 season, Gonzales said, is seeing the Lobos remain competitive in every game. It’s seeing the home crowds slowly building. It’s showing the fans and everyone else in college football that getting pushed around is no longer an option.
“I think over the next few years we have a chance to be a really good football team,” Gonzales said. “Some of the transfer portal and NIL could make that challenging, but I guarantee you if we win some games this year, guess what? Everybody’s going to say how did they win games and who are the best players on that team and how do we get them.”
Therein lies the biggest hurdle in UNM’s way. With the NCAA granting players the freedom to transfer from one school to another without sitting out a year or forfeiting eligibility, not to mention higher-profile programs giving players the ability to cash in on the NCAA’s name, image, likeness agreement, programs like New Mexico can easily become organ donors for rivals with greater resources.
If a player has a breakout year and puts up solid numbers, there’s nothing stopping other schools from swooping in and pilfering UNM’s roster once a player enters his name into the transfer portal.
Looking around University Stadium, there are certainly signs of progress. The area just outside the south end zone is fenced off for a construction project that adds a state-of-the-art weight training center. Internally, the school has found funding to add coaching positions and make salaries more competitive.
It’s a byproduct, Gonzales said, of a school administration that sees the value of athletics and of a growing list of politicians who lend more support than in years past.
In some ways, Gonzales is as much an ambassador to Lobo football as he is a coach. When you sit in the big office and earn the big paycheck, it’s not always as simple as diagramming Xs and Os.
For most of his career, Gonzales did just that, flourishing in the shadows as an assistant while the head coach did all the talking and bore the weight of being the face of the program. Nowadays, he can’t get through a visit to Costco without having 10 conversations with fans who want to talk shop.
“Which I don’t mind,” he said. “I like talking to people. I like talking about the Lobos, I like talking about what we’ve got going on around here. It means that people care and, I tell [his wife] all the time, that when they stop talking to me we better move because it means they’ve given up.”
UNM opens its 12-game regular season with three straight home games, starting with a Sept. 3 visit from Maine. Six of the Lobos’ first eight games are inside state lines, including a mid-October drive south to New Mexico State.
While the Lobos weren’t given much love in the preseason polls, Gonzales said he likes his team’s chances now that the defense is rounding into shape under assistant coach Rocky Long, UNM’s defensive coordinator and the winningest head coach in Mountain West Conference history. The defensive backs are as good as UNM has had in years, Gonzales said, while the linebacking corps could blossom into the best in the MWC.
Of course, all anyone wants to talk about is the quarterbacks. In a day and age where it’s standard fare to have QBs operate in the run-pass option scheme, keeping the man under center on his feet is paramount to the Lobos taking another step forward. To that end, there is no one more important to the 2022 season than the offensive line.
“It hasn’t been running the quarterback, that has not been the issue,” Gonzales said. “The issue’s been protecting him.”
Those concerns, as with all the others, will start to be addressed when practice opens Friday.
As has been the case since Gonzales took over nearly three years ago, all practices prior to the first day of the fall semester (Aug. 22 in this case) are open to the public at no charge. … Long is perhaps the most revered football coach in school history. At 72 and a former Lobo quarterback himself, he’s also pretty popular with the players. Every morning he heads to the weight room and pumps iron with the team. Gonzales claims Long can still bench press 275 pounds. “More than some of my players,” he said. … Gonzales said replacing UNM’s outdated press box is a “$20 million project,” but one that should be explored in the years to come. … The top QB on the depth chart is redshirt freshman CJ Montes. He appeared in three games last season, completing seven passes in a loss to UNLV. Gonzales said Montes broke his non-throwing hand early in that game but never told the coaches — a move that earned him a certain level of respect, Gonzales said.