ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Crusoe Gongbay was a keeper, and Bob Davie knew it.
The problem was convincing Gongbay.
Problem solved? Yes, though not without time and opportunities lost.
But time’s not up yet.
Gongbay, a powerfully built running back from Rockville, Md., had an amazing freshman season at the University of New Mexico in 2011.
If 500 yards and a 4.6-yard average per carry don’t sound amazing, consider that the other running backs on that horrid 2011 team averaged 3.3 per carry. And Gongbay’s longest run from scrimmage that fall was 26 yards, meaning those 4.6 yards per carry were tough, tough yards indeed.
Gongbay was one of the few bright spots to emerge from a season that saw coach Mike Locksley – the man who’d brought him to Albuquerque – fired after four games.
That November, Davie, the former Notre Dame coach who’d spent a decade as a TV analyst, was hired at New Mexico.
Could Davie rebuild a program that had won seven games the past four seasons? Gongbay, like so many other 2011 Lobos, didn’t plan to stick around long enough to find out.
“He was adamant about leaving,” Davie says. “From the moment I got here, he was leaving.”
Yet, Gongbay says, his true feelings on the matter were not nearly that sharply defined.
“It was a little bit of loyalty (to Locksley and his staff),” he says. “It was a little bit of just a lot of people getting in my ear. … My mom telling me this; my coach telling me this; mentors telling me that.
“I was young, just trying to make a decision and getting pulled in a lot of (directions). I kind of didn’t know what I really wanted to do. So, I just made a decision.”
The decision was this: Gongbay would stay enrolled at UNM for the 2012 spring semester, in compliance with NCAA transfer rules for freshmen. He then would transfer to Maryland, where Locksley had been hired as offensive coordinator.
A major setback, however: the scholarship at Maryland never came through.
Abandoned, Gongbay weighed his options.
“There were other (four-year schools) I could have gone to,” he says. “I could have gone the (junior college) route if I’d wanted to.”
There was another option, though. Davie, having seen Gongbay on game film from 2011, never stopped re-recruiting him.
“No. 1, he was in a good academic situation,” Davie says. Also, he discovered, Gongbay’s 2011 teammates liked, respected and trusted him.
Davie was aware, as well, of some of the outside pressures being exerted on Gongbay to transfer.
“Because of that,” he says, “we kept the door open for him to come back.”
The attention from his “former” school, Gongbay says, was appreciated.
“(Davie) stayed on me the whole time,” Gongbay says. “Even in the summertime, he had (DeAndre Smith, UNM’s running backs coach at the time) talking to me here and there, just checking up on me, making sure I was OK.
“(Davie) stayed with me the whole time because he believed in me. He was one of my biggest fans, so that’s why I felt like it would be a good thing to come back.”
Coming back wasn’t easy.
Gongbay returned to the team Aug. 20, 2012, just 11 days before the season opener. The Lobos’ offense was radically different from that which he’d experienced the previous fall.
Meanwhile, Kasey Carrier – who’d sat out the 2011 season while injured – had become the Lobos’ premier running back. The next two seasons, Carrier would rush for a combined 2,591 yards.
Carrier’s carries left precious few for Gongbay, but he’s made splendid use of the ones he got: six touchdowns and a 6.5-yard average per carry the past two years, while excelling on special teams.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Davie says. “… Every step (he takes) is full speed, and he truly loves to play football.”
The talk this spring has centered on replacing Carrier by a committee consisting of Gongbay, junior Jhurell Pressley, sophomore Teriyon Gipson and perhaps redshirt freshman Romell Jordan.
But running backs coach Apollo Wright says the door remains open for Gongbay to get Carrier-type carries, provided he gives a Carrier-like all-around performance: running, pass blocking, receiving, etc.
“Kasey did everything, and he did everything well,” Wright says. “So, he could stay in the game a lot longer.
“For Crusoe, this is his last year. He’s come a long way. He now can stay in there and do a lot of those things, so we will see.”
Gongbay, meanwhile, isn’t looking back – except to say his decision to return was the right one.
“I’m playing well,” he says. “I like my coach; I like all the coaches here. I like what they’re doing.
“There’s a lot of excitement, and I’m glad that I came back.”