Better University of New Mexico football teams have beaten better opponents, in higher-profile games and in more dramatic fashion.
Nonetheless, here’s the game that checks in as No. 1 on our highly unofficial, relentlessly subjective list of the 12 most memorable games in UNM football history: Lobos 22, Arizona 15, Dec. 7, 1963.
Glad you asked. Here’s why: That game in Tucson stands as the signature victory of the greatest three-year period (1962-64) in program history.
The tally: 22 wins, eight losses, one tie.
And – drum roll, please – three, count ’em, three, conference championships.
A conference title, after all, was Rocky Long’s white whale during his 11-year tenure as Lobos head coach: ever sought, never captured.
A conference title plaque is what first-year UNM head coach Danny Gonzales has pledged to bring to the UNM trophy case after a drought that now stands at 56 years.
A conference title is something UNM first won in 1934, hasn’t won since 1964 – shared with Utah that year – and has won just four times in its 122-year history.
The 1963 Lobos were the middle child in that three-year championship span – not as good as the 1962 team (7-2-1) or the 1964 team (9-2). They went to Tucson that December with a 5-4 record, the same as Arizona’s.
Neither the 1962 Lobos nor the 1964 team, though, played a game that qualifies as the poster child for those three championship seasons.
The 1963 Lobos did – and won.
Both teams entered the game with Western Athletic Conference records of 2-1, a resume that doesn’t exactly scream title-worthy. The WAC, in its second year of existence, consisted at the time of only six teams. And Arizona State, the fledgling league’s strongest program, was ineligible for the title because it was able to schedule only three games against league teams.
But, asterisks be damned. This game was for all the WAC marbles, at least all that were in the ring that year. Keepsies, no changies.
The game was played, as well, with a dramatic backdrop – the nation still enveloped in shock and sorrow after the assassination 15 days before of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
Originally, in fact, the Lobos and the Wildcats were to have played on Nov. 23. The New Mexico team actually flew to Tucson the evening of Kennedy’s death with the intention of playing the following day.
Anguished protests and cooler heads, however, determined otherwise. The Lobos flew back to Albuquerque on Saturday morning, the game postponed until Dec. 7.
“Public pressure was the reason we changed our minds,” Arizona athletic director (and former UNM head coach) Dick Clausen told the Albuquerque Journal. “Our student body and the townspeople have been calling all (Saturday) morning.”
But Clausen acknowledged he agreed with the decision.
“I know I have no stomach for football right now,” he said.
The following Saturday, Nov. 30, New Mexico blew out WAC rival Brigham Young 26-0. Arizona, previously unbeaten in league play, was manhandled by intrastate rival ASU 35-6 – setting up the title game.
The 1963 Lobos were missing most of the stars from the team that had won the inaugural WAC title the previous year: halfback Bobby Santiago, quarterback Jim Cromartie, ends Larry Jasper and George Heard, linebacker Chuck Clausen, lineman John Kosor.
To no one’s great surprise, then, the 1963 team struggled out of the gate: a 1-3 record, including a 19-6 loss to Utah in the Lobos’ conference opener and a 13-12 loss to downstate rival New Mexico State.
Then, led by Stan Quintana, a slender sophomore quarterback from Santa Fe, the Lobos found their footing.
Senior fullback Bucky Stallings and junior halfback Joe Harris, behind an offensive line anchored by senior center Eddie Stokes and juniors Jack Abendschan and Wayne Tvrdik, mounted an effective ground game. Quintana, a fine runner, threw sparingly but effectively.
This was still the one-platoon era. Abendschan and Tvrdik, along with Stokes at linebacker, senior Mario Mariani at end and Quintana in the secondary, led the defense. Stokes, Tvrdik and Abendschan were named first-team All-WAC at season’s end.
After the loss to the Aggies, the Lobos won their next three – outscoring Montana, Colorado State and Wyoming by a cumulative score of 66-12. “Lobos may be coming of age,” read a Journal headline after a 25-0 rout of CSU.
A 30-8 loss to Air Force and Terry Isaacson, the Falcons’ star quarterback, dropped the Lobos to 4-4. Then came the series of events – the Kennedy assassination, the postponement, the BYU game – that set the stage for Dec. 7.
A see-saw first half ended with Arizona in front, 15-14. After U of A’s second TD of the second quarter, the Wildcats lined up to kick the PAT. Instead, holder Gene Dahlquist, the Wildcats’ backup quarterback, jumped to his feet and took the ball across the goal line for two points and the lead.
The Lobos went back ahead on a 1-yard Stallings plunge in the third quarter, set up by an 18-yard pass from Quintana to Gary Plumlee. UNM went for two and got it on a tackle-eligible, Quintana-to-Mariani pass, making the score 22-15.
From that point, wrote Journal sports editor LeRoy Bearman, “The Lobo defense took over and contained Arizona when it counted.”
First, Lobos defensive back Bob Pettis jarred the ball loose from a would-be Arizona receiver on a fourth-down play at the UNM 28-yard line.
Later, Stokes’ shoestring tackle on Wildcats quarterback Bill Brechler at the Lobo 27 short-circuited another Wildcats threat.
Finally, Lobos linebacker Chuck Kelly picked off a Dahlquist pass on Arizona’s final possession, and UNM ran out the clock.
The Lobos celebrated as if they’d won the Super Bowl (which, of course, did not exist at the time).
“The strongest drink on the premises was Seven-Up,” wrote Journal reporter Bob Brown, “but the boys were drunk with joy after winning the Western Athletic Conference title for the second year in a row.”
The Lobos took turns posing with the Kit Carson Rifle, awarded annually to the winning team in the New Mexico-Arizona rivalry. So enthusiastically did they pass it around, Brown wrote, that players and others in attendance were sometimes forced to dodge the bayonet affixed to the weapon.
Coach Bill Weeks, who oversaw all three of those WAC titles, had perhaps the best summation.
“I’m so tired, I ought to go to sleep,” he said on the plane ride back to Albuquerque. “But I can’t afford to miss this feeling.”
The Lobos would win the WAC title again in 1964, Quintana leading the way. But the following year, the one-platoon era ended and the college football landscape changed forever.
New Mexico, despite isolated pockets of success, has never won another conference championship.
Danny Gonzales, you’re up.
This concludes a series of the 12 greatest (or most significant, or memorable) games in UNM football history. It began with the intent of running one installment during each corresponding week of the 2020 Lobos’ original schedule, which was canceled. The Mountain West Conference reconsidered and the 2020 Lobos are trying to play a shortened, league games-only schedule. Meanwhile, the series has continued. The choices:
12: 1945 Sun Bowl win over Denver
11: 1962 comeback win over Utah State
10: 1959 loss to New Mexico State
9: 1982 Lobos and the “Justice Bowl” vs. Tulsa
8: 2002 victory over UNLV
7: 1997 victory over BYU
6: 2003 win over No. 24, Urban Meyer-coached Utah
5: UNM’s 1959 season-ending upset of Air Force
4: Lobos’ upset win over No. 9 Utah in 1994
3: UNM’s 94-17 loss to Fresno State in 1991
2: The Lobos’ momentous 31-24 upset of Boise State on the Broncos’ blue turf in 2015
1. New Mexico’s 22-15 victory over Arizona in a game that determined the 1963 Western Athletic Conference title, the signature victory amid the best three-year span in program history