Oh, the scene we fantasized for the day for the first home game of University of New Mexico football in the Danny Gonzales era.
The stands at Dreamstyle Stadium would be packed with 35,000 fans. Those on the west side would yell “Danny!” and those on the east would answer, “Rocky!” in celebration of the happy homecoming and reunion of Gonzales and Rocky Long.
The band would be larger and play better. The cheerleaders would be more enthusiastic, the hot dogs hotter, the beer colder. The PA system would be understandable to the human ear. Lobo greats from the past, like Brian Urlacher, would congregate on the sideline in a demonstration of solidarity with the program as the renaissance of UNM football began with a resounding win over Does It Even Matter.
But this is 2020. The “home” opener of the reconfigured 2020 schedule couldn’t even be played at home – essentially, nothing can, in the wake of the state’s COVID-dictated public health restrictions. So it was relocated to San Jose State Saturday night.
Dreamstyle Stadium, meanwhile, is back to University Stadium as another agreement to give UNM Athletics money somehow didn’t work out. Urlacher’s politics, as made known through his social media comments on racial violence, drew the ire of current Lobo football players who didn’t see him as on their side, and thus might not want him on their sideline.
And if the stadium’s PA system makes a decipherable sound but no human ear is there to hear it, can we say it’s working well?
Meanwhile, the guess here is that we won’t see any traces of Lobo football around here for maybe the rest of the season. UNM football can’t come and go, quarantine for 14 days, and play the balance of this already short season. So the best bet is Las Vegas for the month, just like Vegas next week. It’s not a COVID-less nirvana, and of course nowhere in the country are we “turning the corner” on the virus like Trump keeps saying. But it’s probably better than Laramie.
The message, beyond the cold impasse between UNM Athletics and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham with perhaps UNM administration wedged awkwardly between, is that it’s more important for UNM to play its football season than reside in the good graces of the state’s leadership. So in a Pandemic Apocalypse, off the Lobos go to play football and, probably, accept a tour on a remote base, like soldiers sent off to protect access to oil, water, or a way of life.
UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez obviously must feel he has to be a good soldier for the Mountain West Conference, and as he allowed to the Journal Friday, the school needs the league’s revenue distribution for playing ($4.7 million estimated), which presumably would make it worth the expenses to stay out for a month.
I know: Let’s not squeeze too much out of the “going to battle” analogy. Your Lobos came to UNM and are playing football as an elective exercise, not as drafted soldiers involuntarily finding themselves one day on the front line. Whatever reservations they might have, they doubtless have seen their peers at schools across the country playing on national TV and have been eager for Saturday to arrive.
Then again, let’s not minimize the risk either. The “belief” that games can go on safely is an act of faith, based perhaps on statistics that suggest only small chances of catastrophic spread and impact of this disease, and yet don’t eliminate them.
Also, don’t be distracted by the statistics of testing and positive cases UNM Athletics announces, including the positivity rate of less than 1 percent in testing for UNM Athletics. At one time recently, they had nine in the football program with the virus. Doesn’t exactly sound like bubble safe.
But everybody who is playing major college football has faced and will face these challenges. The Pac-12, aka the Mountain West’s role model, begins next week and assumes these risks too. Only a couple of schools, like orphaned New Mexico State, who can’t find anybody to risk with, won’t have this problem.
The premise for this and bulk of it was written way before UNM kicked off Saturday night in San Jose. Little was known about the team (the Journal hasn’t been allowed to view practices in the run-up to the game) before Saturday. But if the Lobos in fact have been obeying the public health order and working out in groups of only five at a time, what to expect? I can’t use the word here, but it is akin to the one CNN’s Dana Bash used in describing the first Trump-Biden debate.
It certainly was better than that in a losing performance, but I’m really not sure it matters.
As a resident, taxpayer (thus supporting UNM) and a media member, Gonzales gets my pass on his W-L this year. Major asterisk attached to those results. I expect starts and stops to the Mountain West schedule just as everywhere else in the country trying to get through this bastardized season.
But I do hold him accountable for the safety of these kids representing this school and this state. As I do Nuñez, UNM President Garnett Stokes, UNM regents and anyone else in a position of responsibility who explicitly or implicitly feels this is the way to go.
I love college football, even Mountain West football. I hope they’re all successful.