The Mountain West Conference, which includes the University of New Mexico Lobos, has canceled fall sports, including football, because of COVID-19 concerns, and will consider playing them in the spring, the league announced Monday.
At New Mexico State University, the Aggies’ football team paused its preseason camp, after a positive COVID-19 test by an asymptomatic individual, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported Monday. The rest of the position group and coaches all tested negative, according to NMSU. And the rest of the football team and coaches were to be tested Monday and Tuesday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last month sent a letter to leadership at universities in New Mexico urging them to shut down fall sports competition. The smaller schools, Western New Mexico, Eastern New Mexico and Highlands, have already announced they will do so.
The Mountain West Conference joins the Mid-American Conference in ending hopes for a fall calendar. The Mid-American canceled all fall sports on Saturday, the proverbial first domino falling amidst concerns for college football to be played this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet many players and coaches still want to compete in the fall, some insisting it is safer to be in a controlled environment playing football than working out on their own without safety measures.
UNM first-year head coach Danny Gonzales, a former Lobo football player and former UNM assistant, was asked if he was surprised by the league’s decision.
“In this time, I don’t think there are very many surprises anymore,” he said. “As unpredictable as it’s been since we separated back in March, I don’t think anything is surprising.”
In addition to football, the MWC also decided to cancel the seasons for men’s and women’s cross-country, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball (with the exception of the unique circumstances involved with the military service academies). Last week, the league announced that all fall competition in the sports of men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s indoor track and field, softball and baseball was canceled.
Athletics-related activities and training opportunities for enrolled student-athletes, whose scholarships will continue to be honored, will be evaluated consistent with NCAA legislation and guidance, as well as state, local and campus parameters, the MWC press release said.
There are ongoing discussions regarding the status of winter sports, which includes men’s and women’s basketball.
“The Mountain West Board of Directors prioritized the physical and mental health and well-being of the Conference’s student-athletes and overall campus communities in its decision – as it has done throughout the course of the pandemic,” the league announced in a press release.
The MWC board is made up of the league’s university presidents. Asked how she voted and what the total vote was, UNM President Garnett Stokes did not say whether a formal vote even occurred.
“It was a consensus decision by the leaders in the MWC,” Stokes said in a statement to the Journal. “All of us discussed the positions communicated to us by our respective state leaders and acknowledged their importance to our considerations.”
UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez released a statement that said: “While we are disappointed for our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans, we understand that today’s decision made by the Mountain West Board of Directors has the best interest of all in mind.”
He commended UNM student-athletes for being “deliberate and strategic with each step towards returning to play,” following guidelines and contributing to the community.
“I am extremely proud of their resiliency and dedication to their sport, this university and to the community,” Nuñez said. “We will do everything possible to support them.”
Nuñez told the Journal he met with athletes from football, cross-country, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball on Monday before the news broke, saying it was important for him to do so.
“They were disappointed,” Nuñez said, “but they also understood.”
Less than a week ago, the MWC announced that it would play fall sports, but would start no earlier than Sept. 26.
UNM’s football team had been working out and training in small groups with no date set for preseason camp. Gonzales originally had planned to start preseason camp July 31.
The Lobos were scheduled to open the season at home against Idaho State on Aug. 29, but that game was moved to a later date, and there was talk of starting the season against rival New Mexico State.
Gonzales last worked at Arizona State as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, and had developed momentum and energy among UNM alumni and Lobo fans since being hired in December.
“You have to approach everything with any kind of positivity that you can,” Gonzales said. “I told our guys that we’re going to march on with trying to get stronger, bigger, faster, and when we get the opportunity to play, we’ll be ready. There are going to be numerous doors that we’re going to need to knock down to get where we want to get to win conference championships. This is just one more. Those of us who are in it to succeed and win, the only thing you can control is your effort, attitude and want-to, if you control that we’ll be fine. And, when they tell us we can play, we’ll be ready.”
Even with poor ticket sales in 2018, the UNM football team produced between $1.4 million and $1.6 million more than it cost to run the program – money that was used for other athletics expenses in the fiscal year 2018-19. UNM has yet to report its budget for FY 2019-20.
NMSU postpones camp
At New Mexico State, the Aggies’ football team, an independent program, opened fall camp on Friday, when the asymptomatic individual was tested and placed in quarantine.
“Out of an abundance of caution, New Mexico State is pausing activities until results come back for the entire team and staff,” NMSU said in a statement. “The safety and well-being of our student-athletes continues to be our top priority as we navigate through this difficult time.”
The Aggies’ first scheduled game is Sept. 3 at Alabama Birmingham. NMSU had three MWC opponents on its schedule, including the Lobos, Hawaii and Fresno State. Overall, the Aggies have had seven games canceled.
Journal staff writer Geoff Grammer contributed to this story.