For more than 18 years, this relatively nondescript office in the heart of the University of New Mexico athletics complex on the South Campus was the hub of one of the top programs in school history.
Although now there is but one unlabeled box and a generic statue sitting on an otherwise empty shelf, this is where Jeremy Fishbein built the Lobos from a nice little regional men’s soccer team into a national power with international scope.
But now, as June comes to a close, the program is no more, shuttered by a new administration not concerned so much with past successes as future revenue and Title IX challenges. The men’s soccer team is one of four sports cut, effective Monday (July 1), along with men’s and women’s skiing and beach volleyball.
Fishbein’s contract officially runs out today. As he prepared to turn out the lights in his office and on his Lobos coaching career, he sat down with the Journal recently to discuss what it all meant.
AJ: What are some of your favorite memories?
JF: My favorite memories are something like this morning, getting coffee with a former player and talking with him about life and hopefully helping him solve some problems. Those things won’t change. When you’re a coach, you’re always a coach and a mentor and a friend. There’s just incredible memories. The greatest memories are when you’re able to galvanize a state and bring people together.
And probably some of the fondest memories are the ones that never got any attention. People’s natural reaction when you’re a coach are your fondest memories are what are perceived as our greatest victories on the field. But that’s a culmination of everything else. It’s the relationships. It’s bringing a smile to a kid’s face. That’s the beauty of the job. That’s where as a program, as a player, as a coach, you always live on through others’ actions. We’ve had incredible players here who are so impactful in all kinds of other fields around the world. And to be a part of that is a gift that not everybody gets.
AJ: Who are some of the names that come to forefront and I know there are a bunch of them because I was trying to go through some of them myself?
JF: You just can’t even go there. It’s been such a community-based deal for 18½ years. It would be an injustice to single out people. It’s been the greatest honor to serve in this role and to represent the university. When you represent the university, you represent the state. And that’s been the gift. Wherever I’ve been in this country or in the world, to be able to wear that New Mexico stuff, be it a hat or shorts, it was pretty awesome.
AJ: What are some of the on-field memories?
JF: We’ve had some incredible wins. The first signature win that really kick started the program, I wanna say when we beat Indiana at home and they were the No. 1 team in the country and they might have been the defending national champs. (Editor’s note: It was in 2004. Indiana was defending national champ and repeated.) That kind of legitimized in everybody’s mind the quality of our program and our players. And there have been some great wins over the years and being able to share that with the members of the community has been special.
AJ: The atmosphere in the stadium in your games against Cal and Milwaukee-Wisconsin in your first run to College Cup were unforgettable. What was that like?
JF: We had big games throughout the years. It’s been financially, just with staffing throughout the department, just with marketing budgets and in-game promotions, it’s been tough. It’s been exciting seeing what New Mexico United has done. But that being said, that atmosphere that you talked about, that could have been developed. This could have been pretty incredible consistently. At the same time, when your focus is on generating revenue, soccer hasn’t been a direct revenue producer in terms of tickets. It produced great things, most importantly, it produced impactful people. You can’t put a price on the impact of a teacher, a social worker, or a law enforcement officer or a judge or a Navy Seal. You can’t put a price on the impact they have. And we’ve been fortunate to develop men like that here. But that’s a whole other discussion. The memories are all fond and they’re learning.
AJ: What are your future plans?
JF: That I can still be impactful in other ways. The plan is to be here in New Mexico. As of today, I really don’t know. At this point I feel like I can step away from coaching. I’ve done it all my life. I don’t know how I’ll feel in a couple of weeks.
AJ: Has anybody been knocking at your door?
JF: Opportunities have presented themselves. I interviewed for one job. I flew out to UCLA and I interviewed for the UCLA job. And I think that was more of an ego thing. It was just the ability to, well, I don’t know what it was. But it was never the right job for me. It would have been a nightmare. My family didn’t want to do it. They hired the right guy (Editor’s note: Ryan Jorden, most recently at Pacific). They hired somebody who was younger and wouldn’t have been recognized as somebody that was at a school for 18 years. … I was allowed to see this thing through and that’s what I should have done.
AJ: What were your expectations for yourself and the program almost 20 years ago when you joined the program?
JF: I was probably like 33, 34. From a program standpoint, I had a lot of confidence. I thought, maybe not as rapidly, but I thought we would be a national contender and we did it in four years. We played for the national championship. I thought we had the potential to be a nationally ranked program year in and year out. I had confidence in the local players and I had confidence in myself. We achieved those things. In terms of as a coach, the sky was the limit. As a young coach, we all think that, as you progress, the professional ranks are better than the college ranks, or being involved with the national team program. But the longer you’re in collegiate athletics, you realize it’s very different. I felt more and more that I was meant to be a collegiate coach. That being an educator was an important part. You want to win and you want to compete and you want to be the best, but not at the expense of developing quality people. That’s’ what it’s meant to be a part of collegiate athletics. And it’s blurred right now. You look at Division I athletics across the board, it might as well be professional and I think that’s a mistake.
AJ: What do you think made the program so special so quick?
JF: The community. The passion of the people. The commitment of the people. The love of soccer. That’s what New Mexico is. New Mexico is a blending of cultures. It’s diversity. Unfortunately we kind of see ourselves as the underdog. But it’s perfect. It’s progressive. Soccer is progressive. It’s what we’re about. You can see it right now with New Mexico United. The fire has been lit for a long time.
AJ: What have the past three months been like?
JF: Since March, you thought there might be one more shot. Like I said, I think it hasn’t really set in. I’m still here in my office. I’m still getting paid by the University of New Mexico, so it will probably hit me Monday. But I will continue to be a coach to a lot of these guys. These guys will continue to be a part of my life. These players are always a part of my life.
AJ: Were you actively trying to help the guys find new places?
JF: That’s all we did. The guy I think you have to make special mention of is (assistant coach) Kelly Altman. Kelly Altman stuck with the program. He had opportunities to leave. He was committed to our guys. He’s a New Mexico guy. Kelly almost single-handedly made sure every single player was placed. I give him all the credit. He was unreal. These were great players. People were knocking on their doors.
AJ: What are your plans for Monday? Sleep late?
JF: No, sleep late. I actually have some meetings set up. I have to figure out my finances, figure out some insurance stuff, make sure all my ducks are in a row. And then start looking for a job. At some point, that is the reality. I don’t feel like there is an immediate urgency. I have to have a real clear head and make good decisions. But everything is on the table. I know myself, I’m a competitive guy. I’m a hard-working guy. I want to be challenged and I want to be in New Mexico.
(Editor’s note: Fishbein’s last contract, through the final three years, paid $112,979 annually in base salary. UNM also paid as deferred compensation $50,000 into his 403(b) retirement account for 2016-2017 and was obligated to a $60,000 payment to the account in each of his last two years.)
AJ: What has this whole process been like for the family?
JF: It’s probably been harder than I realized. It’s been really hard. Luckily there are just incredibly strong women, focused and passionate about their own self interests and they’ve been able to navigate it, but it’s been really stressful because it’s been 24/7. Wherever you go in public and I’m sure it’s at my kids’ school or my wife’s work, people are asking. It’s tough. On one hand it’s humbling that so many people care, but it wears on you. It’s been tough. My kids are doing really well. My older one, she’s really focused. She’s out there running all the time. She’s excited for college (Note: Alisa Meraz-Fishbein has signed with Colorado). She can’t wait.
My wife is into what she does. She’s a counselor and she’s working toward becoming a diagnostician. She’s just passionate about giving back. So she has her own outlets. And the younger one, it’s probably been hardest on her. She’s still got two years of high school. She’s a soccer player. It’s tough on her.
AJ: Economically, the program might not have brought in a lot of revenue in terms of ticket sales, but it earned a certain amount of prestige for the university, correct?
JF: That’s a whole different discussion because of the social impact. How do you put an impact on what our program and our alumni have provided for this state? And as soon as collegiate athletics is just about a business model, we’re in big trouble and that’s something all across the country we really need to look at. This is part of the educational mission of the university. At the University of New Mexico and other schools, we’ve gotten away from that and it’s something we really need to analyze. What our players have done and contributed to in terms of impactfulness, you cannot put a price tag on it.
I understand it’s very difficult in terms of the athletic director or as a president, and that’s not what they’ve been tasked with. The athletic director has been tasked with, this is the budget and you have to live within this budget and he’s done a good job of that. And as a new president, she’s been faced with a very challenging task as well. To say what are the reasons for declining enrollment or perception, does soccer have anything to do with that, I can’t say.
I look at it from a different lens. To me it’s a whole holistic approach to excellence. Time will tell. My biggest thing is I want to be the biggest fan of our university and our athletic department, and I want to see every kid that’s representing the Lobos be given the opportunity to succeed. But … that they live up to their responsibility that they represent this university and this state at the highest levels and that needs to be demanded from all our student athletes and all of our coaches. We are representatives of this state and we are the flagship university. And I’ve always taken a lot of pride in that.
Here is a list of Lobo soccer accomplishments in the Jeremy Fishbein era and where his 2018 players are going.
A RECENT TIMELINE LEADING TO THE ELIMINATION OF FOUR UNM SPORTS
March 27, 2018: Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron writes to UNM that the university must submit by May 1, 2018 a plan for correcting the athletic department’s deficit.
April 10, 2018: With $4.7 million in debt accumulated over a decade, UNM Athletics announces a plan to eliminate more than one sport, but doesn’t detail which. The university’s Board of Regents ultimately approves a plan to cut $1.9 million from the athletic budget for fiscal year 2020.
July 18, 2018: Citing the deficit, costs but also Title IX concerns, UNM Athletics announces a recommendation to eliminate men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and (women’s) beach volleyball to be effective July 1, 2019.
July 19, 2018: The Board unanimously approves the proposal.
Aug. 8, 2018: The state Attorney General’s office says the Regents’ decision to cut the sports occurred in violation of the state’s open meetings law and could be invalid.
Aug. 17, 2018: Yielding to AG Hector Balderas, the Regents meet again — and vote 7-0 to cut the four sports.
September 2018: Gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham vows to reinstate the sports if she is elected.
February 2019: A House budget bill proposes a boost of the state’s general-fund appropriation for UNM Athletics to $4.6 million — up from $2.6 million and more than the $4.1 million UNM requested — on the condition that the four slashed sports be reinstated for 2019-20.
March 2019: UNM fires back in defense of its decision — saying the $2 million offered in the House bill would not cover the costs to keep the sports long term, and that “there was no way to become Title IX compliant without reducing sports,” UNM President Garnett Stokes said.
March 2019: The state Senate eventually strips out budgetary language in the House Bill requiring the return of the sports in order to receive funding, decrying the approach as “micromanaging.”
May 9, 2019: A new Board of Regents approves a budget of $32 million for FY 2020 for UNM athletics that projects a $1 million shortfall, even with a $32 million budget that has four fewer sports to operate as of July 1. Regents decide to funnel $1.2 million to Athletics for its debt service payment on the Dreamstyle Arena — the Pit renovation.
— Journal Staff Report