The Las Vegas Lobos.
Maybe the Sin City Lobos or, given the similar color scheme, the UNLV Lobos.
Someone call the marketing department because the University of New Mexico is on the move, literally.
On Friday afternoon just minutes before his football team’s plane left the runway at the Albuquerque International Sunport bound for the Bay Area and Saturday night’s season opener at San Jose State, UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez shared the bombshell news that the Lobos are, in effect, moving their base of operations to Las Vegas, Nev., for the foreseeable future.
A partnership with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas will allow the players and coaches to use student housing and allow the team to conduct 11-on-11 practices at Sam Boyd Stadium, the former home of the Runnin’ Rebels’ football program. UNLV now plays in Allegiant Stadium, the brand-new 65,000-seat, $1.8 billion home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.
“We’re going to go week by week because I don’t want to put the cart before the horse here,” Nuñez said. “Basically we will create our bubble in Vegas and make plans as we go.”
It’s the latest move UNM has made in trying to escape New Mexico’s strict health guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. It comes on the heels of an aggressive testing protocol initiated by the Mountain West Conference that requires every member of the football program to be tested for COVID-19 three times a week.
Nuñez said UNM’s football team has had 491 tests this week with zero positive results in nearly two weeks. Not since an Oct. 14 outbreak that saw eight players and one staff member test positive — an outbreak that was followed by another positive test the following week that led to as many as 20 people being put into isolation — has UNM had an incident.
The initial eight players have been medically cleared and rejoined the team, Nuñez said. The ninth player can leave isolation next week but Nuñez didn’t say if that player will join the team in Nevada.
The Lobos will return home after the game Saturday night, go through a round of tests Sunday morning and load up a caravan of buses and drive to Las Vegas. The team’s total traveling party, Nuñez said, will be about 120 people.
To get his blessing for the operation, Nuñez said there were three points to UNM’s plan that had to be met:
u Allowing regular COVID-19 testing to continue taking place just as it has in Albuquerque.
u The players had to have a realistic opportunity to play, train and stay physically and mentally sharp because, as Nuñez said, they have done everything the university had asked of them since the pandemic started. That includes the demands of their academic requirements.
u The financial aspect. UNM is set to reap at least $2 million to $3 million from a scaled-back payout from the Mountain West Conference’s lucrative TV deal with FOX and CBS, plus its tie-ins to the bowl system and the College Football Playoff. Nuñez estimated it will cost at least $200,000 to $300,000 to keep the team in Las Vegas in the short term.
“I think it’s more worth it than getting zero,” he said. “The money factor is important because the money we bring in goes back to this department for all sports, not just football.”
With coronavirus cases reaching record highs in New Mexico, Bernalillo County’s numbers have climbed dramatically over the last three weeks as the statewide death toll passed 1,000 on Friday.
This increasing spread of the virus forced Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to tighten the state’s public health order, restricting gatherings of more than five people and requiring a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling to New Mexico from a high-risk state, according to the Health Department. The governor is discouraging trick-or-treating on Halloween and asking people to stay home as much as possible.
California was added to New Mexico’s high-risk list this week, joining 44 others. The exceptions are New York, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
Nevada falls onto that list of risky destinations, meaning the Lobos have to remain in Las Vegas through at least the Nov. 7 road game at Hawaii to avoid New Mexico’s quarantine order. It’s likely, Nuñez said, that UNM’s next home game, scheduled Nov. 14 against Nevada at University Stadium, will be moved to Sam Boyd Stadium.
UNM isn’t required to make a decision on whether to play that game in Albuquerque until Nov. 9 or 10.
Regardless of where it’s played, UNM will treat it — just as it is for Saturday’s game at San Jose State — as a home game. The Lobos will wear their red home uniforms for both games.
“Our hope is that we can continue to do everything we can so that come December, we have the ability to host those last two games [Wyoming on Dec. 5 and Fresno State on Dec. 12] here at home in the state of New Mexico,” Nuñez said.
It appeared UNM is headed down a similiar path as soccer’s New Mexico United, the state’s nomadic professional franchise that had to play all 17 of its matches outside the state for the United Soccer League season. The team was not allowed home dates but got approval to travel in and out of the state without being subjected to a 14-day quarantine.
The team was also allowed to assemble for practices and conditioning workouts free of restrictions.
Coronavirus cases are significantly higher in Bernalillo County now than they were when the United were playing. Nuñez said some things are out of UNM’s control, and there comes a time when the university’s health measures need to be considered.
“I’m not going to stand here and tell you it’s going to be perfect,” he said, “but we’ve gone two weeks in a row without a positive test. We’re going to have problems but we’re doing as well as we can.”