He was a fullback and a linebacker, a pitcher and an infielder.
He was a coach, an administrator, a Civil War buff.
Above all, he was an educator.
Gary Ness, a former University of New Mexico athlete who went on to serve his alma mater as a physical education professor and as athletic director from 1988-92, died on Friday. He was 76.
Ness’ daughter, Rebecca Cox, said via social media that her father had been suffering from dementia and heart and circulatory problems.
Jim Cromartie, a former UNM teammate and longtime friend, recalled Ness as a man as tough as he was kind, as consistent as he was competitive.
Though Ness never served in the military, Cromartie said, he always reminded him of John Glenn — the astronaut turned U.S. senator and a much-decorated U.S. Marine.
“(Ness) was ‘The Clean Marine’,” said Cromartie, UNM’s starting quarterback from 1960-62. “He was just a tough, strait-laced kid.
“My wife and I were watching the movie ‘The Right Stuff.’ John Glenn was Gary. He was always going to do the right thing.”
Ness came to Albuquerque in the fall of 1960 after having led the Las Cruces Bulldogs (not Bulldawgs; that would came later) to an undefeated season and a state title the previous fall. In a 1959 state semifinal against Highland, he rushed for 140 yards on just nine carries in a 19-9 Las Cruces victory.
At UNM, though hampered by injuries, Ness played on two Western Athletic Conference football championship teams (1962-63). On the baseball diamond, he twice led the Lobos in hits, triples and RBIs. In 1964, he led the team with a .386 batting average.
He doubled as an occasional starting pitcher, once throwing a complete-game four-hitter against Colorado State.
In 1962, Cromartie said, Ness was playing baseball while his football teammates were having spring practice. Ness’ starting job at fullback, Cromartie said, was being threatened by a bigger, faster sophomore.
“We’d see Gary in the cafeteria or whatever,” Cromartie said, “and we’d say, ‘Hey, (the sophomore), he’s tough. He’s tough.'”
Ness said little in response, Cromartie said. But one afternoon, Ness decided to suit up for spring football drills.
One particular contact drill put Ness and the sophomore opposite each other. First one would be a blocker and the other a defender, then the opposite.
“It was like two bulls,” Cromartie said. “They were knocking the crap out of each other.”
Ness was outweighed in that individual competition by perhaps 40 pounds, Cromartie said. But in the end, he said, it was the younger, bigger player who wanted no part of the battle.
“Then Gary walks off the field and goes to baseball practice,” Cromartie said. “He’d made his point.”
After graduating from UNM, Ness studied and coached at Stanford and at North Texas (then North Texas State), where he coached, among others, future Pro Football Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene.
Ness later returned to UNM as a professor of physical education and recreation. In 1988, after the resignation of embattled athletic director John Koenig, Ness was named interim AD.
In May 1989, then-UNM President Gerald May removed the “interim” tag.
As athletic director, Ness was credited with bringing much-needed stability to the South Campus in a time of turbulence — “point man in a war zone,” one Journal reporter called him.
Ness’ well-earned “nice guy” image did not prevent him from making tough calls. In 1990, he fired Del Hessel, a popular and successful track-and-field coach, because of athlete-eligibility issues.
In 1992, UNM men’s basketball player Steve Logan was allowed — in an effort to preserve his playing eligibility — to add two classes with just six days remaining in the fall semester. Ness wanted Logan ruled ineligible, but he was overruled by then-UNM President Richard Peck.
By then, Ness’ tenure as AD was almost over. Peck had decided that June to replace him, while saying he had no particular problem with Ness’ job performance.
“I was not dissatisfied, things were going well,” Peck said. “… I just believe things can be better.”
Ness’ ouster as AD, Cromartie said, always bothered him. But he remained at UNM as a tenured professor.
In 1997, Ness left Albuquerque to take a job as a professor of sports management at Lynchburg (Va.) College. For a self-described “Civil War nut,” he said, proximity to so many Civil War battlefields, etc., was a bonus.
Ness later returned to New Mexico and spent three seasons (2003-05) as the head football coach at Albuquerque High. In 2010, he resurfaced as an assistant at Menaul.
Through all the years, Cromartie said, his friend and teammate never changed.
“Just a good guy, always professional,” he said. “He was ‘The Clean Marine.'”