A remarkable thing happened at University Stadium on Nov. 18, 1989. A University of New Mexico football team with a 1-10 record beat the pre-Thanksgiving stuffing out of the previously undefeated (10-0) Fresno State Bulldogs, 45-22.
Yet, as amazing and improbable as the outcome was that afternoon, that game is not No. 3 on our highly unofficial list of the 12 most memorable games in UNM football history.
It is mentioned here only because of the role it played in the Lobos’ equally amazing – but, frankly, less improbable – 94-17 loss at Fresno State on Oct. 5, 1991.
Why would such a debacle be selected at No. 3 on our list? First, the dictionary definition of “memorable” says nothing about good or bad.
Second, and more to the point, this is about Lobo football. To highlight only the good and not the bad, given the program’s history, would paint a thoroughly distorted picture.
The story actually begins on Sept. 3, 1988, when coach Jim Sweeney’s Fresno State Bulldogs beat coach Mike Sheppard’s Lobos 68-21 at University Stadium in each team’s season opener.
Next on Fresno State’s schedule was Colorado. During that week, in talking to the Colorado media, Sweeney – who, thankfully, never worked in the State Department – made clear his low opinion of Sheppard’s Lobos.
“Please don’t judge us on the New Mexico game,” he said, “because they are baaaaaad.”
Less noted at the time, but more chilling and proving almost prophetic: “Seriously, we could have scored 100 points.”
Then, 14 months later, came UNM’s revenge. The lowly Lobos rose up to emphatically ruin the Bulldogs’ perfect season. “Sweeney’s a weenie!” Lobo fans chanted, recalling his comments from the previous fall.
At the time, Sweeney was beyond gracious.
“I just hope it’s the end of it,” he said after the game. “If what I said last year helped them beat us this year, fine. We want good relations between New Mexico and ourselves.
“Their players got their revenge, our coach got his humility lesson. Let it go at that.”
There’s ample reason to believe Sweeney didn’t let it go.
In 1990, the Bulldogs beat the Lobos 24-17 in Fresno in a game UNM had every chance to win.
Then came the game that lives in infamy.
The Lobos went back to Fresno in 1991 with a 1-4 record. Fresno State was an impressive 3-0, having defeated Pac-10 opponents Washington State and Oregon State back-to-back.
Even so, no one could have anticipated what happened that night at Bulldog Stadium.
The score was 66-7 at halftime. To get from 59 to 66, Sweeney had called timeout with seven seconds left in the half.
During the halftime break, the Albuquerque Journal reported the next morning, Sweeney was heard saying this on a Fresno radio station: “The message is fairly clear. The people of Albuquerque will never (again) call Sweeney a ‘weenie.'”
Of course, he was wrong about that.
After the 94-17 bludgeoning was over, Journal beat writer Ed Johnson wrote his story this way:
“The 61-year-old man brought his bitterness for Albuquerque to Bulldog Stadium on Saturday night.
“… Before the game, Sweeney praised a number of Lobos. He wasn’t about to let Albuquerque know of his plot, at least not right away. No, he waited until Saturday night, game night, and for the bitter man, it couldn’t have worked out better.”
Still, the Lobos’ massive contributions to their grisly fate were duly noted: eight turnovers (five interceptions, three lost fumbles) and a defense that allowed 36 first downs and 757 total yards.
“I thought we quit tonight for the first time in 4½ years,” Sheppard said afterward. “We’ve gotten beat, Lord knows, but … I blame myself for that. I’m not trying to be a hero. I’m just saying that I’m in charge, and our players quit. That’s exactly how I want you to write it.”
Exactly how the relationship between Sheppard and Sweeney factors into this story is not clear. Clearly, though, it does.
The two had known each other for a while; Sheppard had coached against Sweeney three times (1984-86) when Sheppard was at Long Beach State and the 49ers and Fresno State were rivals in the old Pacific Coast Athletic Association. Fresno State won all three games, though all three were competitive.
When the Journal contacted Sweeney for clarification after his “they are baaaaaad” comments in 1988, he said he didn’t intend his remarks as criticism of Sheppard.
“I just have no comment,” Sheppard said at the time.
Even after the 1991 humiliation, Sheppard refused to be drawn in. “No comment,” he said. “I’m tired of talking about Jim Sweeney.”
A month later, though he was allowed to coach the Lobos through the end of the season, Sheppard was fired. He left with a 9-50 record over five seasons.
At UNM, Sheppard – friendly, approachable and a talented and creative offensive coach – was unable to overcome substandard facilities that handcuffed him in recruiting. His Lobos often put up good offensive numbers but simply could not stop anyone.
The 45-22 rout of Fresno State in the 1989 finale, which appeared to presage good things ahead, proved to be a mirage.
After one season as the offensive coordinator at California, Sheppard went on to a 21-year career as an NFL assistant. He last coached at Jacksonville in 2013.
In 2005, Journal sports writer Brad Moore traveled to New Orleans, where Sheppard was a Saints assistant. The 1991 Fresno State game was an unavoidable topic.
“I’ve tried to put it out of my mind,” Sheppard said, admitting he hadn’t been totally successful. He backtracked on his postgame comments that his players had quit that night, saying, “If anything, I let them down. Did we get down? Yeah. But the guys didn’t stop running, they didn’t stop trying to tackle or catch. They didn’t quit.”
Sweeney, by 2005 retired as a coach, had little to say on the subject. But Kim McCall, a former Highland High quarterback and a UNM linebacker in 1991, told Moore he’d talked to a Fresno State player of his acquaintance after the game.
“He said, “It’s nothing against you guys, but our coach doesn’t like your coach.'”
In 1992, when Sweeney brought his Bulldogs back to Albuquerque to play a UNM team now coached by Dennis Franchione, both programs – players and coaches – just wanted to move on.
“Last year was last year,” said Lobos junior center Justin Hall, who’d played two years for Sheppard. “It’s different. This is a different (UNM) team, different program.”
Sweeney coached at Fresno State through 1996, leaving after 19 years having won 143 games, eight conference championships and five bowl games. The field at Bulldog Stadium is named in his honor.
A footnote: Sweeney almost became UNM’s head coach in 1973 – backing out because he wanted a five-year contract and UNM offered him only three years. He died in 2013 at age 83.