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2017 in New Mexico sports: A year of controversies, major triumphs

As a foreshadowing of the year to come, Jan. 6, 2017, serves only too well.

That night, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team led Nevada by 14 points with 1 minute, 16 seconds left in regulation time – yet, somehow, lost to the Wolfpack in overtime.

At home.The Pit? Dreamstyle Arena? That night, UNM’s venerable basketball palace could have been called the House of Cards.

That moniker, as well, could probably be applied to the UNM athletic department. Arguably, 2017 has been the most chaotic year on the South Campus since the Lobogate scandal, way back in 1979.

So, brace yourselves, folks, for the mother of all run-on sentences:

From dwindling attendance to the messy firing of coach Craig Neal to the cutting of the ski program (later rescinded, for now) to the Scotland golf trip to an audit by the state to athletic director Paul Krebs’ sudden retirement to uncollected Pit suites revenue to reports of an investigation into football coach Bob Davie’s conduct to the football kneel-down controversy to a 3-9 football season to Krebs’ deleted emails, the news out of the South Campus just kept getting worse.

There was, however, this saving grace. For New Mexicans on the big stage, 2017 was a winner.

Has a World Series championship team ever before had two major contributors from Albuquerque? The Houston Astros did, in the persons of third baseman Alex Bregman and relief pitcher Ken Giles.

Has any UNM athletic program won two NCAA team titles, let alone two in the span of three years? Coach Joe Franklin’s women’s cross country team did exactly that.

Has any UNM track athlete won the NCAA indoor mile and the NCAA outdoor 1,500 meters in the same year? Lobo freshman Josh Kerr won them both.

Has any college football team gone 57 years without going to a bowl game? Not the New Mexico State Aggies, who made national news by ending a 56-year postseason drought with an invitation to Friday’s Arizona Bowl.

Has any UNM player ever been elected to the College Hall of Fame? Brian Urlacher became the first this year, though (it says here) Don Perkins and Terance Mathis should have preceded him.

Has any New Mexico boxer ever been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame? Well, yes. But now there are two: the late Bob Foster and the late Johnny Tapia, who joined his fellow Albuquerquean this summer.

Nor was the news all bad at the corner of University and César Chávez SE. In May, Dreamstyle Remodeling CEO and lifelong Lobo fan Larry Chavez pledged $10 million to UNM athletics, to be paid over a 10-year period.

This has been a memorable year in New Mexico high school sports, but I’ll leave that in the eminently capable hands of Journal prep editor James Yodice – noting only that Manzano, my alma mater, won the state big-school football title for the first time.

All together now, Monarchs, as loudly and as obnoxiously as possible: Hail, hail Manzano …

Here, then, is a month-by-month look at a classic mixed bag of a New Mexico sports year:


“The Great Collapse” against Nevada makes the national wires … Urlacher is voted into the CFHOF… the UNM men’s game at Colorado State gets chippy … men’s hoops attendance at the Pit threatens to drop out of the national top 25 in attendance for the first time since before the Pit opened in 1966.


A quiet month. Albuquerque MMA fighter Holly Holm loses by unanimous, though disputed, decision to Germaine de Randamie at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. … the Holm camp files a protest with the New York State Athletic Commission, citing blows landed by de Randamie after the horn ending rounds two and three, but is denied.


A busy month. Fresno State ousts the Lobo men from the Mountain West Conference tournament – UNM finishes 28th nationally in men’s basketball attendance with an average of 11,768 … Boise State eliminates the UNM women from the tournament; they finish 15-15 in coach Mike Bradbury’s first year … Krebs announces that Neal will return as UNM’s men’s coach … Kerr wins the NCAA indoor mile … the NMSU men’s basketball team, under first-year head coach Paul Weir (remember the name), wins the Western Athletic Conference tournament and finishes with a school-record 28 victories …, in previewing the men’s NCAA Tournament, lists the Lobos’ Elijah Brown as a leader of the Aggies … Brown announces he’ll transfer for his senior year … budget shortfalls plague UNM athletics … and no, Krebs says, Neal will not return as UNM’s men’s coach after all. He’s out after four years.


In a letter to UNM fans, Neal says thank you … often-troubled Albuquerque MMA fighter Jon Jones pledges no more drama … Weir leaves NMSU to take the UNM job, declines to don the traditional cherry-red blazer until he’s earned the right … NMSU hires Chris Jans, a former Bowling Green head coach and Wichita State assistant, to replace Weir … Krebs announces that the ski program, which won UNM’s first-ever team national title in 2004, is to be cut … UNM’s misbegotten Scotland golf fundraiser first comes under the microscope.


Mega-donor Chavez is all in for UNM … Former Eldorado star and Lobos guard Cullen Neal, Craig’s son, transfers from Ole Miss to St. Mary’s for his senior year … the UNM ski team is saved for now, but Krebs links its future to better football and men’s basketball attendance (gulp) … Wells Park Community Center is renamed for Tapia, who practically grew up there … it’s revealed that UNM paid the way for three of its guests on the Scotland trip with athletic-department funds.


The state Auditor’s Office announces plans to conduct a special audit of the UNM athletic department’s fundraising and spending habits … Krebs announces his retirement, less than a year into what was to be a three-year term on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee … Kerr adds the NCAA outdoor 1,500-meter title to his title in the indoor mile … the Pit becomes Dreamstyle Arena, but Chavez says it will always be the Pit. … The Albuquerque Isotopes become the Green Chile Cheeseburgers for a day, and the GCC apparel sells like, well. green chile cheeseburgers … In Singapore, Holm ends a three-fight losing streak with a victory by third-round TKO (a spectacular head kick) over Bethe Correia.


Another quiet month. Kerr is named the Mountain West Male Athlete of the Year… Jones reclaims the UFC light heavyweight title with a victory by TKO (third-round head kick) over longtime adversary Daniel Cormier.


Former Lobo and 2016 Olympian Courtney Frerichs wins a silver medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the world track-and-field championships in London … Former Lobo and La Cueva Bear Jarrin Solomon wins gold in the 4×400 relay for Trinidad & Tobago … more drama for Jones; he tests positive for a banned substance, forfeiting the light heavyweight title and placing him on indefinite suspension. … Eddie Nuñez, a deputy athletic director at LSU the past 14 years, is named to succeed Krebs.


New Mexico State beats UNM in football for the second straight year … independent journalist Daniel Libit reports that Davie is under investigation for allegations of player mistreatment and drug-testing irregularities … Five UNM players kneel during an unexpected playing of the national anthem at halftime of the Air Force game at Dreamstyle Stadium.


At a news conference, the five UNM players who knelt during the national anthem express no regrets. Davie supports them fully … four Major Leaguers with New Mexico connections – Bregman, Giles, Mitch Garver and Mike Dunn – reach the playoffs … the Lobo football team, 3-2 at the time and coming off a bye week, gets smoked 38-0 at Fresno State. It will be the first of seven straight losses to end the season … Weir brings Mark Tichenor, far better known as “Snake” the estranged Lobo superfan, back into the fold … Bregman has the game-winning RBI in Game 5 as the Astros take a 3-2 lead over the Dodgers in the World Series. “He loves baseball more than anybody I’ve ever seen,” his teammate Brian McCann tells FS1 in its postgame show. “He lives for these moments.”


Bregman, Giles and the Astros win it all … So do the UNM women at the N CAA Cross-Country championships; Lobo Ednah Kurgat is the individual winner … Holm and champion Cristiane”Cyborg” Justino agree to terms for a Dec. 30 UFC featherweight title fight … Krebs admits he deleted emails, possibly at variance with UNM policy.


Davie fires offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse and cornerbacks coach Al Simmons … the football Aggies beat South Alabama in dramatic fashion, 22-17, to finish 6-6 and earn that bowl trip to Tucson … Urlacher is formally inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame … the New Mexico State men beat the Lobos at the Pit, 65-62, to complete a sweep of the two-game series. Then, in Honolulu, Jans’ Aggies upset sixth-ranked Miami for the NMSU program’s first victory over a top-10 team since 1990 … the UNM women set a school record with 11 straight victories to start the season … Marshall beats Colorado State, 31-28, in the 12th annual Gildan New Mexico Bowl … Merry Christmas, and best wishes for a 2018 in New Mexico sports that’s exciting for all the right reasons.