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Lobo-Aggie athletics merger proposed

Well, that’s one way to get six wins.

The Rio Grande Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Albuquerque, published a policy brief Tuesday about the financial state of the athletic departments at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University. The paper contained an outside-the-box idea for saving money: combining sports teams.

The New Mexico State Aggies and the New Mexico Lobos face off in a football game in 2015. A merger of the football teams is proposed to save money. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

“I’m not an expert on NCAA rules and regulations, and perhaps it’s not something that could be done,” said Paul Gessing, president of the foundation. “We’re just saying explore that as an option. … Our philosophy is that it might be worth considering ways to have NMSU and UNM somehow join forces from a sports program perspective. Especially with football, they don’t have the fan base or the money … to compete with major college programs.”

In football, the Lobos and Aggies each went 3-9 last season. A team has to win six games to qualify for a bowl game, so perhaps the state’s chances of putting a team in the postseason would improve with a merger.

But UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said there are several reasons, including that the two colleges are more than 200 miles apart and compete against each other, that make such an idea unlikely to come to fruition.

“They are two different groups of student athletics. They are two different academic institutions. Even if, magically, somebody said ‘yes,’ (the NCAA) would not do that,” Nuñez said. “I don’t think it’s ever been posed that one school should combine with another school for any sport. I mean, holy smokes.”

The Rio Grande Foundation’s 10-page paper questioned why New Mexico tax money and student fees are being used to fund college athletic teams.

It said the two athletic departments, like many at other universities around the country, don’t pay for themselves and rely on money that could be used elsewhere. It suggested either terminating or combining sports teams, especially football and basketball, in coming years.

The foundation said it is “ethically questionable” to use mandatory student fees to fund sports and included information about how much the basketball and football coaches make at the two colleges compared with faculty members and other staffers. It also questioned how the two schools could compete with larger schools from major conferences in the future.

“In a poor, sparsely populated state like New Mexico the best outcome is for the two major universities to act together in aligning their basketball and football programs with financial and long-term performance realities,” the foundation said. “These sports entertainment programs should not outweigh fundamental mission priorities.”

The Journal on Tuesday couldn’t find any examples of two college football teams blending into one. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles combined for the 1943 NFL season because their rosters were decimated by World War II. There are also cases in which smaller New Mexico high schools join together to form one athletic team.

At UNM, regents have called for campuswide discussions beginning in the fall about the role athletics should have at the university because of the department’s financial troubles in recent years. The athletic department didn’t make budget in eight of 10 years, racking up about a $4.7 million deficit it has to pay back to the rest of the university.

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