Danny Gonzales, the University of New Mexico’s head football coach, poses for a photo with former Lobos players following his introductory news conference in December. UNM is slated to open its preseason camp next week.

Let the kids play.

The head coach of the University of New Mexico football team said if the people who make the big-money decisions follow the numbers, the college football season should go on as planned.

During a virtual news conference with members of the local media Thursday, Danny Gonzales was asked if it was a good idea to even have football this fall given the recent spike in cases of the new coronavirus.

“If you go to statistics, the doctors are telling us that it is,” he said. “Our age group of athletes, within that group there’s a lot of things that say that they can do it safely.”

The Lobos are scheduled to start their regular season Aug. 29. On paper, that game is supposed to be at home against Idaho State, but word leaked Wednesday that UNM and New Mexico State are finalizing negotiations to play their annual Rio Grande Rivalry game that day in Las Cruces, allowing UNM to push the Idaho State game to Sept. 19 when the Lobos and Aggies are contractually assigned to play.

UNM has seen its schedule reduced from 13 games to 11 in recent weeks as the Pac-12’s decision to play a conference-only slate wiped out a Sept. 12 visit to USC. Just minutes after Thursday’s virtual news conference, the Southeastern Conference did the same thing, meaning the Lobos’ Sept. 5 game at Mississippi State is also gone.

Those two games prevent UNM from collecting what would have been nearly $2 million from contractual agreements for each contest. The Mississippi State game also costs Gonzales a shot at coaching against his former colleague, Zach Arnett, now the defensive coordinator with the Bulldogs. Arnett and Gonzales worked on the staff at San Diego State, and both men played and later coached at UNM.

The loss of the USC and Mississippi State games leaves a three-week gap between the opener and the Sept. 19 game against whomever UNM puts there. Playing NMSU in the opener would allow both teams to work around the state health mandates that require a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling into New Mexico from out of state.

NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia said Wednesday the Lobos and Aggies could potentially play a home-and-home series this fall, a possibility UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said he could neither confirm nor deny.

The Lobos and Aggies have met 110 times in a rivalry that dates to 1893, but they’ve never played more than once in any season.

The Mountain West Conference has not indicated whether it will follow suit with the Power Five conferences and play a league-only schedule, a move that would eliminated the annual Rio Grande Rivalry. The Lobos’ first five games are against nonconference opponents, with the MWC opener set for Oct. 3 at Colorado State.

UNM is slated to open its preseason camp next week, although there’s no clear direction on how those practices will be conducted or if they will even happen.

Gonzales said his players have been coming into the team facility for small-group workouts in staggered time windows, and that plans call for every player to wear dry-fit gaiter masks in meetings, practices and games. The team has avoided using its own locker room inside Dreamstyle Stadium, opting for 11 temporary tents outside the Tow Diehm Athletic Facility within the stadium to give players a place to change and conduct meetings in well-ventilated areas.

It’s not ideal, Gonzales said, but it’s enough to keep the players engaged and give everyone around the program a sense of safety.

“I hate the term ‘the new normal,’ but because that’s the way we’re doing things, those guys have gotten used to it and the communication has been good,” Gonzales said.

To date only one Lobo football player has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. There are plans to conduct teamwide testing for everyone in the program as soon as training camp starts. The player who fell ill, receiver Jordan Kress, announced his diagnosis in a since-deleted post to his Twitter account July 21.

“The thing that scares me and that keeps me up at night is these guys are 18 to 22 years old, and I remember what I was like when I was 18 to 22 years old; I thought I was invincible,” Gonzales said. “We ask them, ‘Guys don’t go out and congregate, don’t hang out together, don’t have a party.’ If one of our football players throws a party, he won’t be on our football team anymore.”

Regardless, Gonzales said football should go on despite the maelstrom of uncertainty about what comes next. He said as long as medical experts agree and the public wears masks and follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the games should go on.

“If you do all those things properly, they say it’s safe,” Gonzales said. “Those guys are going to be the ones that make that decision.”

That being said, Gonzales insists he will not hold it against any of his players should they make the decision to opt out of the 2020 campaign. There was a day, he said, when a player simply played through medical issues, but that was long before a global pandemic shifted the way people think about their own well-being.

“They’re not going to be punished if they don’t play, I’m OK with that,” he said, adding, “They’re not going to lose their scholarship, they’re not going to lose their stipend, they’re not going to lose their spot on this team. You’re seeing guys opt out in the NFL, Major League Baseball and NBA. I got no problem with that.”

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