In trying to sound as optimistic as possible given the world of college sports was crumbling around him, University of New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nuñez said he was just happy to see the sun come up Tuesday morning.
It was, he said, a welcome sign given the bleak news shared the day before. The Mountain West Conference joined a growing list of leagues around the country — the Big Ten and Pac-12 being the most recent — to cancel or indefinitely postpone the fall sports seasons amid growing concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While admitting he’s disappointed, Nuñez said there’s more to it than emotion.
“It’s also the first opportunity that we now understand that we have to take a different path,” he said. “We’re taking this as the next challenge that’s in front of us.”
One of them is surviving the health scare that is going to cost UNM the bulk of its projected athletics revenue for the 2020-21 school year. Football drives the department’s economic engine, and without it, the only hope of balancing the fiscal year’s budget of roughly $32 million is, at minimum, a full men’s and women’s basketball schedule.
“For us to be able to be fully successful at the end of the calendar year, we’re going to have to have some version of basketball, we’re going to have to have some version of football and we’re going to hopefully be able to have some wonderful donors that continue to support us beyond just the ticket purchases and everything else,” Nuñez said.
There have been weekly discussions on doing just that among the MWC’s presidents. The league’s athletic directors similarly meet twice a week, and Nuñez said he and UNM President Garnett Stokes remain in constant contact in hopes of finding a way to preserve at least some sort of athletic presence for the school and the 11-member conference.
The majority of UNM’s ability to generate revenue relies exclusively on athletic competition. The university draws millions of dollars from lucrative TV and broadcast deals, as well as its ties to postseason games for football and basketball. In turn, those generate ticket and merchandise sales, as well as booster donations.
“That’s what this does to you, is you start going down a path and you start thinking of all the different questions and all the different things and every one has its own little path that we have to follow,” Nuñez said. “First of all, I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of normalcy this year.”
The glass-half-full projection of UNM football coach Danny Gonzales is a season that starts as early as October and as late as the spring semester, perhaps an abbreviated slate of six to eight games starting in March or later. The alternative, he said, is something far worse.
“I hope we play sooner rather than later,” he said. “If they go all the way to we’re not playing a football game until September of 2021, then we’re going to have to work our tail off around here fundraising. I might become a fundraiser more than a football coach, but you know what? It is what it is, and when you take on the responsibility of being the head coach at a university such like New Mexico, that’s part of your job. Do I want to be a full-time fundraiser? Nope.”
The Lobos have had continuous workouts and practices for the last several weeks and Gonzales plans to continue them as though the season were just around the corner. He said Tuesday that the coaching staff’s job is to get the players through this health crisis, and part of that is a never-ending dedication to prepare as though nothing has changed.
“I will say this: I’m a positive person, so three years from now we’re going to be looking back at this in my third, fourth year as the head coach and we’re competing for a championship in the Mountain West Conference, hopefully we can look back at this and say what a rocky, wild start it was,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales said he learned about Monday’s decision by Mountain West leadership while most of his players were already at the team facility for workouts. Conveying the message of the stoppage to his players was an emotional experience, he said, but one that left him with his sights on getting back onto the field within a matter of months.
While there is no real barrier for when it’s too late to have football, Nuñez knows that deadline does exist. He said he would have a hard time condensing what would be two full football seasons into a nine-month (or less) window beginning in March.
It could lead to as many as 25 games sandwiched around an offseason of no more than a month or two. The ideal time frame would be a shorter slate that begins and ends before March Madness, Nuñez said.
“I would have a very difficult time seeing a football season start, as coach said, some time in March, April, May, June, because do you have enough time to allow your student-athletes to kind of reenergize themselves and be ready to go and truly put themselves in a position to be in a good place starting in the fall?” Nuñez said.