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Editorial: With 15 new hires and cash woes, Lobo football needs a plan

It’s like watching one of those old movies where a train is heading full speed toward a canyon with a broken trestle. The drama is in whether the good guys can make a temporary fix or the engineer can slam on the brakes in time to save the day.

Such is the state of the upcoming Lobo football season and the fiscal consequences riding on this train.

At this point, nobody knows if there will be college football games. Anywhere. If there are, will there be fans? If so, how many? Will there be small crowds equivalent to the 25% church service limit who follow social distancing and figure out how to manage Lobo dogs and a beer while masked up?

How do you ensure the safety of 100 football players and a full complement of coaches and staff? Do we triple-space the marching band and social distance the huddle?

If UNM – like some schools – opts for primarily online sessions with few students on campus, will there still be football?

UNM Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez and new head coach Danny Gonzales believe there will be a season and are moving forward accordingly. “Is it going to look identical to what it was? That I don’t know,” Nuñez says. “I do see football happening. It’s just going to be a modified version of sorts.”

Accordingly, UNM has finalized contracts with 14 assistant football coaches, led by offensive coordinator Derek Warehime and defensive coordinator and Lobo icon Rocky Long at just over $250,000 each. Finishing touches are still being put on Gonzales’ contract, which calls for $400,000 in base salary and $300,000 in supplemental pay. Which begs the question of what if there is no revenue? Or only a trickle?

UNM is banking on a couple of big payday games at USC and Mississippi State in September that will pay UNM more than $1 million each. But those are far from a sure thing – especially USC, where officials in California are talking about an abbreviated schedule with teams only playing conference opponents, if they play at all. It’s also far from certain the three Mountain West teams that are part of the California State University system – San Diego State, Fresno State and San Jose State – will have football seasons since their chancellor has announced classes will be primarily online.

Some NCAA guidance is expected soon. For player safety, practice needs to start four to six weeks before the Lobos’ Aug. 29 opener with Idaho State. Even if college football gets a green light at the national and conference levels, play is subject to what Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham decides.

Meanwhile, Nuñez says UNM is proceeding with many scenarios and safety measures that include testing, limiting the number of athletes in weight rooms and breaking practice into small groups. “Are we going to have 100 guys on the practice field? Probably not.”

Beyond what happens on the field, what happens with concessions and restrooms, the antithesis of social distancing. Cashless transactions? Limit the number who gotta go?

Nuñez says having even 10,000 to 15,000 fans in Dreamstyle stadium, capacity 40,000-plus, is significant from a revenue standpoint.

Meanwhile, the fiscal picture for both Athletics and UNM is bleak.

Faced with setbacks like the fanless state high school basketball tournament, the department was showing a $2.3 million deficit through March. Nuñez is projecting a $3.5 million deficit by the end of fiscal 2020. But a football season with finances decimated by COVID-19 would blow that up.

In the past, main campus has bailed out athletics. But the first month and a half of the pandemic hit UNM with a $50 million negative impact including $4.5 million because of declines in housing and food services. That doesn’t contemplate what happens in the fall. President Garnett Stokes said earlier this month “moving forward, we’ll be making decisions and plans for budgets and operations … some of which will likely be painful.” Hard to imagine much help there.

Arguably, Nuñez is proceeding the only way he can. You can’t wait until June or July to get a staff in place, and coaches don’t just work during the season. “I’m an optimist,” he says, “hoping for some normalcy. Whatever that means.”

Most of us are hoping for the same. But UNM has committed big money to football. If it doesn’t happen this fall, its leaders, including regents, need to ask what’s the backup game plan.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.