Those were the days.
Why, one might ask, does a loss – to New Mexico State, of all foes – find its way onto a list of the University of New Mexico’s most memorable football games?
Fair question, to which there are multiple answers.
• One: It’s not as if UNM’s football history consists of memorable victory after memorable victory. This won’t, in fact, be the last Lobo loss to make the list.
• Two: A nod to New Mexico’s venerable intrastate rivalry seems a worthwhile observance. It’s not Auburn-Alabama, but it’s all we’ve got.
• Three: Again, those were the days, the best the Lobos – and the Aggies, for that matter – have seen before or since.
And that’s why UNM’s 29-12 loss to New Mexico State on Sept. 19, 1959, checks in at No. 10 on our list.
The New Mexico Lobos were coming off a 7-3 season in ’58, their first winning campaign since 1953. With a smart young head coach in Marv Levy, and with a roster headed by all-time great running back Don Perkins, the future looked bright.
Meanwhile, the Aggies believed things were looking up in their second year under coach Warren Woodson. After 18 consecutive losses in the UNM-NMSU series, the Aggie faithful believed their time was at hand.
So it was.
On that warm early fall evening at Zimmerman Field on UNM’s main campus, a capacity crowd of 17,000-plus turned out for the annual rivalry game. The Lobos were opening their season; the Aggies had blasted Arizona State College (now Northern Arizona) 35-0 in their opener.
At the time, the college football landscape was changing. African-American players were beginning to find their way onto rosters in the Southwest.
Perkins, fellow halfback Billy Brown and quarterback Chuck Roberts accounted for almost half of UNM’s offense that season.
Woodson, meanwhile, had brought in halfbacks Pervis Atkins and Bob Gaiters from a California junior college. He’d inherited two Black starters, fullback Louis Kelley and lineman Billy Ray Locklin, from the previous coaching staff.
The game began positively for UNM – at least, for the first minute or so. The Lobos took the opening kickoff, and Brown immediately broke a 34-yard run. But, caught from behind, he fumbled and the Aggies recovered.
On NMSU’s first play from scrimmage, Atkins, playing wingback, bolted 56 yards for a touchdown on a reverse.
After the game, Levy told the Albuquerque Journal he didn’t believe his players were demoralized by this sudden negative turn. But, he allowed, the Aggies – if they’d had any doubt coming in – now truly believed they could win.
The Lobos didn’t quit. A 33-yard Brown touchdown run in the third quarter narrowed the Aggie lead to 16-12, and a defensive stop gave UNM the ball with a chance to go ahead.
But another fumble, this time by halfback Bob Crandall, gave the ball back to the Aggies. A short touchdown run by Atkins made the score 23-12, and the game essentially was over.
The Lobos had their chances, having outgained the Aggies 379 yards to 360. But three lost fumbles, an intercepted pass and several dropped passes spelled defeat.
“They outplayed us,” Levy said.
The Aggies would go on that year to an 8-3 record, capped by a 28-8 victory over North Texas State in the Sun Bowl. The 1959 roster would form the core of the 1960 Aggies, a team for the ages that went 11-0 and beat Merlin Olsen and Utah State, 20-13, in the Sun Bowl.
For the Lobos, all was not lost, even after losing their second game of the 1959 season, 14-9 at Colorado State. They would rally to finish 7-3 on the year.
More success would follow for both programs.
From 1958 through 1964 – the Golden Age, if you will – UNM went 48-23-1, winning or sharing the first three Western Athletic Conference titles (1962-64) and beating Western Michigan 28-12 in the 1961 (and only) Aviation Bowl.
The Aggies, for their part, would go 63-36-3 with two bowl victories during Woodson’s 10-year tenure.
Things began to change, though, and not for the better, when in 1965 college football went two-platoon. Suddenly, the New Mexico schools needed twice as many good players – at least – in order to compete.
We’ve all seen how that worked out.