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Top sports stories of 2018: Triumph and despair

History does not tell us who first came up with the curious concept of awarding academic scholarships for athletic prowess.

Whoever it was, he (or she) was both a genius and a nincompoop, someone to be both praised and reviled. So many good things have derived from this strange practice, as many (if not more) not so good.

Case in point: the University of New Mexico athletic department.

If you’re reading this column, chances are excellent that you’re a Lobo fan. You love it when the Lobos win, are disappointed when they lose, identify with “our kids,” even if they come from out of state or from a foreign country, more so than with athletes from a pro franchise. There’s that identity.

Chances are equally good that you’re aware UNM this year dropped three of its varsity sports – notably men’s soccer, among the school’s most successful programs – in an effort to combat a runaway budget deficit.

Meanwhile, you know (or should know) from your reading that Hector Balderas, New Mexico’s Attorney General, is sifting through the records of the Lobo Club, UNM’s athletic fund-raising organization, searching for evidence of possible money laundering and violations of the state’s Government Conduct Act.

You may recall that UNM football coach Bob Davie was suspended for 30 days this spring, stemming from multiple investigations into his conduct.

You may be aware that UNM has been deemed out of compliance with federal Title IX requirements.

And, of course, there’s more.

It all makes one wonder if college athletics, as they’re constructed and as they’ve evolved, really make any sense.

But, really, were the travails of the UNM athletic department New Mexico’s No. 1 sports story of 2018, a year that saw New Mexico athletes succeed and be recognized at perhaps an unprecedented level?

• In August, former Lobo Brian Urlacher became the first player from a New Mexico college to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Former NFL playerand University of New Mexico Lobo standout Brian Urlacher delivers his speech during an induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018, in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

• In June, Mike Smith, proudly claimed by both Roswell and Dexter, rode Justify to victories in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and became the first New Mexican to win horse racing’s Triple Crown.

Justify (1), with jockey(and native New Mexican) Mike Smith up, leads the pack as it approaches the first turn during the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race on the way to a Triple Crown. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

• In July, Albuquerque Academy graduate Alex Bregman became the first New Mexican to win Most Valuable Player honors in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

Houston Astros’ Alex Bregman, an Albuqeurque native, doubles against Boston in the American League Championship Series on Oct. 16, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

• In May, Academy grad James Borrego became the first New Mexico native to be hired as a head coach in the NBA.

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego, an Albuquerque Academy alumnus, watches his team during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Washington. Washington won 130-126. (AP Photo/Al Drago)

The above is by no means a complete list of the great things achieved by New Mexico athletes and athletic entities this year. Yet, as uplifting and worth celebrating as they all were, their impact was fleeting.

In contrast, as 2018 ends and 2019 approaches, there’s no end in sight to the malaise on UNM’s South Campus. And therefore the poster child, our No. 1 story for the year, is the cutting of men’s soccer.

What, exactly, did coach Jeremy Fishbein do wrong? Nothing. What did his players do, or not do, to deserve having the program pulled out from under their talented feet? Nothing.

During Fishbein’s 17 years as head coach, the Lobos made the NCAA championship game (2005) and the semifinals (2013). They’ve made it to the Sweet Sixteen five times, to the NCAA Tournament 11 times. For 14 straight semesters, UNM men’s soccer has compiled a grade-point average of 3.10 or better.

Yet, when UNM President Garnett Stokes, athletic director Eddie Nuñez and the Board of Regents made their cost-cutting decisions, none of that mattered. Stokes, Nuñez and the Regents looked at the program’s Title IX vulnerabilities, its travel budget, etc., and soccer was gone.

During the fall campaign, now Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham said men’s soccer would not die on her watch. But she was short on details, and it’s unclear what her options might be. Of course, she has yet to take office.

In conclusion, let me acknowledge that my look at New Mexico sports in 2018 doesn’t exactly warm the heart. And, as for 2019, despite well-meant efforts to clean up the existing mess, know that the problems that dog UNM – and many other college athletic programs – are built-in and defy solution because of the strange and unwieldy model upon which those programs are built.

Nonetheless, one thing is certain.

We’ll continue to love our college athletics.

Here’s an exhaustive, yet not necessarily complete, month-by-month look at 2018:

January

The UNM men’s basketball team is humbled, 90-62, at Boise State … New Mexico State reports that the Aggies’ December 2017 Arizona Bowl victory over Utah State had an earned media value of $24.4 million … Rallying, the Lobo men come from 13 points back to beat San Diego State, 79-75, at the Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit.

February

UNM suspends Lobos football coach Bob Davie for 30 days, stemming from several investigations into his conduct … UNM graduate Kerry Perry is hired as president of USA Gymnastics, the sport’s scandal-ridden national governing body … Brian Urlacher becomes the first New Mexico Lobo to be selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame … The UNM Board of Regents opts not to entertain Davie’s appeal of his suspension.

March

Lobo men’s basketball’s average attendance of 10,883 is the lowest since the Pit opened in 1966 … After a tough start, coach Paul Weir’s first UNM team finishes third in the Mountain West Conference and makes it to the final of the MWC tournament. … The Lobo women finish 25-11, bowing out in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals, then winning two games in the WNIT … The NMSU men win the Western Athletic Conference tournament title, then lose to Clemson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament … UNM middle-distance runner Josh Kerr wins his second straight NCAA indoor title in the mile.

April

New Mexico State wins the all-sports Rio Grande Rivalry competition with UNM for the first time, outpointing the Lobos 14-13 … At long last, UNM lowers its athletic ticket revenue projections for the upcoming fiscal year. .. In Azusa, Calif., Kerr breaks the NCAA outdoor record for the 1,500 meters with a time of 3:35.01 … Lobo kicker Jason Sanders is drafted by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in the seventh round.

May

Borrego is hired as head coach by the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets … Former UNM punter Corey Bojorquez is signed to a free-agent contract by the New England Patriots. Later, released by the Patriots, he’s signed by the Buffalo Bills … The NMSU baseball team wins the WAC tournament title for the first time … UNM is deemed not compliant with Title IX guidelines regarding equal male and female competitive opportunities.

June

The formation of a United Soccer League expansion team in Albuquerque is announced … New Mexican Mike Smith rides Justify to victory in the Belmont Stakes, completing racing’s Triple Crown … Albuquerque MMA fighter Holly Holm defeats Australia’s Megan Anderson on a UFC card in Chicago … UNM linebacker Rayshawn Boyce is arrested on charges of battery and negligent use of a deadly weapon. Boyce is suspended from the team, never to return. … The formation of an indoor pro soccer team, the Runners, is announced … Academy grad Cody Toppert is hired as an assistant by the NBA’s Phoenix Suns … The Duke City Gladiators defeat the Sioux City Bandits, 31-27, at Tingley Coliseum in the Champions Indoor Football title game.

July

Bregman is named the American League Player of the Week and Player of the Month … Bregman also is named the MVP of the Major League All-Star game after homering in the 10th inning of an 8-6 AL victory … The UNM administration identifies four sports, men’s soccer, men’s/women’s skiing, beach volleyball and diving as likely candidates to be cut for budgetary reasons. Days later, the UNM Board of Regents makes it official.

August

Urlacher is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at ceremonies in Canton, Ohio … The UNM Board of Regents confirms its decision to cut men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and women’s beach volleyball but reverses field and votes to retain diving as part of the women’s swimming program … Albuquerque’s fledgling USL soccer franchise hires Troy Lesesne as its coach … Rio Rancho’s Shelby Pendley is named MVP for her performance in leading the professional USSSA Pride to a national softball title.

September

The Journal reports that former UNM athletic director Paul Krebs was the then-anonymous donor who paid $25,000 to help defray costs associated with the bungled, 2017 Scotland golf trip … UNM grad Perry’s short stint as USA Gymnastics president ends with her resignation under pressure … The Lobos beat the Aggies in football in Las Cruces, 42-25, snapping a two-year losing streak in the series.

October

Legalized sports betting comes to New Mexico at Santa Ana Casino … The UNM men’s soccer team ties Marshall 2-2 in what could be the program’s final home game ever … The UNM football team routs UNLV, 50-14, in Las Vegas, improving its record to 3-2. Who knew at the time it would be the Lobos’ final victory of the season?

November

UNM linebacker Evahelotu Tohi is suspended after allegedly punching a teammate in the face, sending him to the hospital. … The Lobos lose 31-3 to Wyoming in their football season finale, finishing 3-9 with a season-ending seven-game losing streak for the second consecutive year … The UNM women’s cross country team finishes second at nationals. Lobo Weini Kelati is second individually … Ending considerable speculation, UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez announces Davie – under contract through 2021 – will return in 2019.

December

The New Mexico State men thrash UNM 100-65 at the Pan American Center, completing a sweep of the annual two-game series for the second year in a row … UNM fires deputy athletic director Brad Hutchins … Agents of the state Attorney General’s office seize UNM Lobo Club records in a search for evidence of possible money laundering and violations of the state’s Government Conduct Act … The Albuquerque Isotopes win a national award for their “Los Mariachis de Nuevo Mexico” entry in Minor League Baseball’s inaugural Copa de La Diversión … The California State Athletic Commission grants Albuquerque MMA fighter Jon Jones a temporary license, clearing the way for Jones’ Dec. 29 UFC title fight against Sweden’s Alexander Gustafsson … UNM elects not to renew the contract of 12th-year volleyball coach Jeff Nelson. … The UFC transfers its Saturday card from Las Vegas, Nev., to Los Angeles, allowing Jones to remain on the card despite a positive test for a banned substance.

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