Former Lobo Diller, 66, died after a long battle with cancer on Jan. 4 - Albuquerque Journal

Former Lobo Diller, 66, died after a long battle with cancer on Jan. 4

Rich Diller played football for UNM from 1971-73. He started for the Lobos at fullback all three of his varsity seasons.

Rich Diller faced the daunting task of following Sam Scarber at fullback in the University of New Mexico’s prolific wishbone football offense.

In that regard, and in so many others in his life, he succeeded admirably.

Diller, who played for UNM from 1971-73, then became a tireless contributor to UNM athletics and to the Albuquerque business community, died on Jan. 4 after a long battle with cancer. He was 66.

Walt Arnold played tight end for the Lobos from 1976-79 and didn’t meet Diller until after Arnold had finished his NFL career in 1987. They met as fellow members of the UNM Alumni Lettermen’s Association and later became business partners in commercial real estate.

“Rich was just a solid, honest man of integrity,” Arnold said on Monday in a phone interview. “He had a lot of convictions about a lot of things, and he lived his life by his convictions and beliefs and the way he treated people.

“He was always so fair and so honest about everything.”

Diller came to UNM as freshman in 1970 after an outstanding athletic career at Washington High School in Phoenix. A prep teammate, offensive lineman Ron Kohl, was already a Lobo. Diller also was impressed by then-assistant coach Bill Mondt, who recruited him.

Most of all, says Diller’s son, his father was attracted by head coach Rudy Feldman’s wishbone option attack.

“He was excited about UNM just because of the rushing offense, the style of offense that they had at the time,” Ryan Diller said. “Obviously being a fullback and a halfback coming out of high school, that was just a dream for him playing alongside (Lobos quarterback) Rocky Long. It was just his style of play.”

Freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition at the time, so Diller watched from the sidelines in 1970 as Long, Scarber and halfbacks Fred Henry and Nate McCall led the Lobos to a 7-3 record — the program’s first winning season since 1964. The Lobos averaged 350 yards rushing per game that season.

But as the 1971 season approached, there was one major question. Who would succeed Scarber, the All-Western Athletic Conference fullback who had exhausted his eligibility?

His father had related, Ryan Diller said, that he felt pressure in trying to win the job.

“Those were big shoes to fill,” the younger Diller said. “But he was someone that never backed down from a fight or from a challenge. He stepped up to the plate and did his best.”

As a sophomore in 1971, Diller finished the season with 764 yards on 160 carries with four touchdowns, short of Scarber’s totals (961 yards on 184 carries, 13 TDs) the year before. Yet, in ‘71, the Lobos rushed for an average of 384 yards per game — better than in 1970 and a program record that still stands. UNM finished the season with a 6-3-2 record.

Brad Bramer, an All-WAC offensive guard, recalled that in 1970 Scarber had served as a mentor to the freshman who would succeed him.

“They were both tall, good-sized fullbacks,” said Bramer, a Lobo from 1969-71. “Sam was a little heavier, probably a little bit faster. But Sam was a good mentor for Rich, and Rich did a great job and was very, very dedicated.”

Blocking for his backfield teammates, Ryan Diller said, was as important to his dad as carrying the ball.

“That was part of the wishbone offense,” he said. “Every play, he was hitting somebody, whether he was blocking or he was running the ball.”

Diller rushed for 651 yards in 1972 and 405 in an injury-shortened 1973 season, finishing his career with 1,820 yards rushing on 418 carries with 15 touchdowns.

In the ensuing 45 years, he raised a family, established his real-estate career, served as president of the Alumni Lettermen’s Association and faithfully followed UNM athletics.

“He was always there to support the Lobos,” said Madison Warren, executive director of the Alumni Lettermen’s Association. “It didn’t matter what sport. He was at football. He was at basketball. He was at volleyball. He’d go to baseball games.”

“He was just a through-and-through Lobo.”

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Sandia Presbyterian Church, 10704 Paseo Del Norte NE.

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