The team dinner at Lorenzo’s on University Avenue was Thursday night, same as most visiting teams coming to Las Cruces. Not on game day, as the Aggies usually do it.
Oh, and the sleep, if there was any to be had, was in a hotel room, not in his Las Cruces home.
Other than that, first-year University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach Paul Weir is trying his damnedest to insist there is nothing different about Friday night’s version of the Rio Grande Rivalry than there was for the past 20 when he was an assistant (nine years) and then record-setting head coach (last season) of the New Mexico State Aggies.
“This rivalry has been going on since 1904,” said Weir, who is making his first business trip back to Las Cruces since his unprecedented rivalry relocation in April that brought the Aggies coach north to lead the hated Lobos.
“I don’t think Paul Weir is even remotely bigger than the Lobos and the Aggies going toe to toe. … Are my boos going to be more intense than maybe some in the past, given what’s happened? Possibly so, but that’s what’s beautiful about this rivalry and hopefully going to make this a fun game.”
“Fun” isn’t how some Aggies fans described it last spring. For them, the rug was abruptly pulled from under them after a spirit-lifting season that included a school-record 28 wins, a 20-game win streak and the first program win over a power conference school in more than a decade.
Much like Weir has successfully done so far in Albuquerque, he had built up plenty of good will in Las Cruces, trying desperately to connect in a way that would reinvigorate and re-engage a once proud fan base.
“I still have a lot of friends there, a lot of people who are very supportive, and that’s great,” Weir said. “Whatever the other people who feel another way, like I said, I think some of the stuff maybe they think about me is relatively inaccurate, but I can’t control that. My job is to coach this team, and if those people feel that way, then that’s the way they choose to feel.”
In his introductory news conference when promoted at NMSU in 2016, Weir quoted Theodore Roosevelt, who his son, Teddy, is named after.
“(Roosevelt) once said, ‘Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground,'” Weir said. “We’re going to keep our eyes on 1970 (the season NMSU went to the Final Four) and we’re going to do it with a humble, aggressive, passionate work ethic and an underdog mentality that you’ve never seen before.”
The Aggies certainly did that a season ago. But as good as things were, Weir’s decade on the NMSU bench showed him some harsh realities. Despite six NCAA Tournament appearances in his decade with the program, attendance was dropping and finances were only getting tighter. NMSU’s athletic department didn’t have the luxury of consistently overspending its $19 million athletics department budget over the past decade while the rival up the road was able to spend freely, even consistently above its $33 million budget.
The limitations, he felt, were no more when he relocated three hours north.
“Here,” Weir said the day he was hired at UNM, “if we’re not successful, it’s my fault. It’s no one else’s fault. It’s not the fans’ fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s on me. It’s very comforting to me professionally for me to go somewhere where it’s entirely on me and my own competencies and my abilities to lead this program.”
Weir insists he isn’t nervous, at least not for himself. He and his wife, Alma, a Las Cruces High and NMSU graduate and lifelong passionate Aggies fan, haven’t yet decided if she will attend the game.
“I really hope it’s a fun game,” Weir said. “I hope that the subtitle doesn’t become me. I hope it remains on the student-athletes, the amazing rivalry that this is. … I don’t want to be the narrative of this game.”
There are some things even coaching basketball at UNM doesn’t allow a man to control.
Men’s basketball: New Mexico at New Mexico State
7 p.m., Pan Am Center (Las Cruces), 7 p.m.
TV: AggieVision (Comcast 77; DirecTV 686-1, 676-4; Dish 440); Online: ESPN3.com.
Radio: 610 AM, 1150 AM (ABQ), 99.5 FM (Las Cruces).
Line: NMSU by 6.5