What the Pit has been to the high school state basketball tournaments — a dreamy locale for big-dreaming teenagers — University Stadium may someday become to New Mexico’s state championship football games.
Yes, it’s purely a hypothetical — as it’s always been — but the notion of a predetermined, centralized site for the state’s high school title games is perhaps closer than it’s ever been before.
“What I’d like to see,” said Randy Adrian, the New Mexico Activities Association’s point man for prep football, “is the state championships made into an event like the state basketball tournament. It’s a really big deal in the state.”
To be perfectly clear, a potential NMAA/UNM marriage is not imminent. The NMAA said no formal talks have begun.
But UNM’s plans to replace natural grass with a synthetic turf — either this year or next — is likely to ignite talks to bring championship games to University Stadium on a semi-regular or even permanent basis.
The expenditure approval for the Lobos’ field was contingent on UNM’s pursuing rent-free deals with Albuquerque Public Schools and the NMAA.
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs on April 5 told the Journal: “We’ve always wanted to be good partners with them, but we’ve got to get agreements signed with them.”
Football is the only high school sport in which Albuquerque or Rio Rancho is not a permanent playoff site.
“Here is what (football’s) sport-specific committee said: ‘We’d like to have a central location,’ ” NMAA associate director Robert Zayas said.
Would such a change fly in New Mexico, which is first and foremost a basketball state?
“I’m in favor of trying something new,” said Goddard football coach Sam Jernigan, who has taken the Rockets to 12 state championship games since 1991. “(But only) if you sold it right. Like any product, it has to be sold well. But I would want a sunset clause on it.”
When a Class 5A title game is staged in Albuquerque, it’s held at Milne Stadium or Wilson Stadium. Those facilities can seat in the neighborhood of 7,000-8,000 fans.
University Stadium has a capacity of 40,000.
“I would be very in favor it,” said former Manzano coach and current Centennial coach Aaron Ocampo, who has long been a vocal advocate for centralization and continues to be even with an impending move to Las Cruces’ newest school. “It’s good for the kids. I think if you play in a state championship game, it’s a cool environment, a cool atmosphere, to be in.”
University Stadium has hosted a handful of prep championship games, in the mid- to late-1970s and early 1980s. The last title game to be played there was the 1980 Class 4A final between Jim Everett-led Eldorado and Clovis.
Then-APS athletic director Buddy Robertson said the playing surfaces at Wilson and Milne — which were then natural grass — were chewed up, so APS hooked up with UNM.
“They were horrible,” Robertson said of the Milne and Wilson surfaces after a season full of games.
Primarily, high school playoff games are played at campus sites throughout the state.
Last fall, the 5A title game was played at the Field of Dreams in Las Cruces, which is a short walk from Mayfield. The 4A game was in Aztec, the 3A contest at St. Michael’s in Santa Fe.
They are almost never played at a neutral site, which is precisely what Milne and Wilson amount to for every Albuquerque school except Manzano, which adjoins Wilson Stadium.
Eldorado (2008), La Cueva (2009) and Manzano (2010) have each hosted the 5A final at Wilson Stadium in recent years.
Neighboring states dress up their championship games in grand fashion. In Texas, they go to Cowboys Stadium. In Colorado, Sports Authority Field at Mile High is a host site.
“I just think it would be a cool event to market,” said Ocampo. “We could possibly get a TV deal. But I’m realistic to know that athletics in New Mexico is run by the smaller schools.”
Many coaches outside the metro area take the contrarian viewpoint. They believe Albuquerque dictates what happens to everyone else. Either way, New Mexico has unique geographic concerns. We are a state with a large landmass, but with a relatively small population base that includes dozens of rural communities.
Among bigger schools, metro coaches by and large would favor using University Stadium, for all the obvious reasons. Not surprisingly, coaches outside the city are less enthusiastic.
“The way we’ve been doing it is OK,” longtime Clovis coach Eric Roanhaus said. “But it wouldn’t bother me a bit if we were playing a team from Albuquerque in the finals, and they wanted to play at UNM.”
Ocampo said perhaps 5A could take the lead and test the waters.
“The 5A game could be the guinea pig,” Sandia coach Kevin Barker said. Barker, who also serves on the sport-specific committee, said the idea of bringing title games to Albuquerque has been thrown around periodically over the past several years.
“If you ask me, then ‘no’ ” Las Cruces football coach Jim Miller said of centralizing state championship contests. The Bulldawgs and Mayfield annually meet at Aggie Memorial Stadium at the end of the regular season.
They even met in the 2002 championship game, which attracted a crowd of near 30,000.
But what if those two were to meet in a future title game that is scheduled to be played in Albuquerque? What then?
There are obvious potholes in this road to centralization.
Even if UNM and the NMAA agree to partner, it’s far from a fait accompli.
Football’s sport-specific committee — comprised of Adrian, plus coaches and athletic directors in various classifications — would have to take this to the schools for a vote.
Adrian said he believes the smaller schools strongly favor centralizing, based on an informal survey he took last season. The larger schools (4A and 5A), he said, were more divided, about 60-40 in favor of centralizing.
Even with an overwhelming number of schools officially backing this proposal, the ultimate decision rests with the NMAA’s board of directors, who have final purview.
“That includes this situation,” Zayas said.
The board could approve it or nix it, regardless of how the schools vote. The board members — with the exception of APS Superintendent Winston Brooks and Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Stan Rounds — are largely men and women who hail from smaller, rural areas, places like Floyd, Tierra Amarilla and Tatum. And also midsize cities like Artesia and Farmington.
Which brings another crucial factor into the picture: economics. For both the NMAA and the schools.
For the NMAA, football is a major moneymaker, second only to basketball.
“If it were to hurt our revenues, no way we could do it,” Adrian said.
Even if it is able to use University Stadium rent-free, there remain other bills to pay, like hiring staff and security personnel.
For the schools, hosting a football championship game often translates into robust business. That means lots of visitors eating in restaurants and perhaps staying in local hotels.
“Financing is one area you’d have to get worked out,” said Goddard’s Jernigan, who teaches economics. “I would not mind giving it a try for a year or two — if, if, if we can work out the bugs about how things are to be financed. It has a lot of hurdles to jump before you could do it in this state. We would lose a lot of tradition.”
And that’s no small thing. Rural schools might be reluctant to surrender their home-field advantages, and that holds true especially in tradition-rich football cities like Clovis, Artesia, Lovington and Las Cruces, where visitors feel like there is a distinct edge for the home team.
“To require Lovington and Hot Springs to drive to Albuquerque wouldn’t be good,” Roanhaus said.
Ocampo said it can work, regardless of the matchups.
“I still think it’ll be a huge event,” Ocampo said. “I think it would be as big as the Pit would be (for basketball).”
Moreover, there is the issue of scheduling.
How would seven classes — 6-Man, 8-Man, plus classes 1A-5A — get championship games scheduled at UNM? Most likely, the NMAA would need to have University Stadium available on split weekends. — one weekend for the smaller schools (6-Man through 2A) and another weekend for 3A-5A.
The 3A-5A title games are usually the first Saturday in December, although this year it is the second Saturday, Dec. 8, which is long after the UNM football season ends.
“You can’t overuse it, so whether it’s APS, the NMAA, or our students who might want to play an intramural championship game in there, whatever, the field has a much greater usage,” UNM athletic director Krebs told the Journal in the paper’s April 6 story.
One story churning on the rumor mill would have Albuquerque Public Schools staging semi-regular games at University Stadium.
“(There have been) no talks at this point with UNM in any way, shape or form,” APS athletic director Kenny Barreras said. “I know it’s out there, but we’ve had no detailed discussions at my level with regard to that.”
Zayas said many conversations and meetings would be needed before the NMAA could make such a dramatic change, and it almost certainly would not happen this year even if UNM installs its synthetic turf for the 2012 season.
“I think it would be extremely difficult to make a decision of this magnitude with short notice,” Zayas said, “being that we are looking at changing the way things have been done for five decades.” — This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal