Danny Gonzales’ squad was 0-5 and midway through the fourth quarter of a Dec. 5 game inside an empty “home” stadium 569 miles from the one the Albuquerque kid was supposed to be living out his dream as the first-year head football coach of his alma mater.
There at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev., as his New Mexico Lobos clung to a 17-16 lead over heavily favored Wyoming, Gonzales heard something he had never heard in a college football game.
“In the environment of not having fans and being an empty stadium, the only energy you get is your sidelines with your kids,” Gonzales said. “And, obviously we had no success for the first five weeks as far as coming close to winning. Then in the Wyoming game, we had the lead and there’s six minutes left and we need a stop. …
“And, so they’re out there (on the field) and coach Long signals (in the defensive call) and over my shoulder I hear our guys slapping their helmets and yelling ‘De-fense! De-fense!’ They’re slapping their helmets and cheering and I swear to God, I thought it was at a YAFL game.”
Admittedly, Gonzales’ first impression was one of slight embarrassment. He had implored, since the day he was hired, his Lobos to embody the same big, bad and tough-as-nails persona the UNM teams of old under his mentor, Rocky Long, used to have.
That was when he realized his team simply put, couldn’t hide their emotion anymore as they went on to win that game for their fans back in New Mexico, their coach and, most importantly, for themselves after enduring a season-long relocation to another state just to play at all due to the public health order in New Mexico prohibiting them from practicing or playing on their own campus.
“That 20 minutes (at the end of the Wyoming game), I’ll never forget that the rest of my life,” Gonzales said. “It was just comical. I was so proud of them.”
That pride doesn’t, even for a minute, mean Gonzales thinks it was easy what his program went through living away from friends, family and loved ones – a grueling and entirely out-of-state journey the UNM men’s and women’s basketball teams are about to embark on as Mountain West Conference play ramps up this week.
There was also no sugarcoating the challenge ahead for Lobo basketball coaches Paul Weir and Mike Bradbury when the Journal asked Troy Lesesne, New Mexico United’s coach about it. He was named United Soccer League co-Coach of the Year after leading United into the playoffs despite not being able to play once in its home state. (United was allowed to return to practice between matches, though.)
Weir has already talked to Gonzales and Lesesne in recent weeks for advice on how they managed to do what his team now must do. The Journal also asked both coaches for the advice they would share with the Lobo basketball teams.
Both said it’s a must to be flexible and willing to break from your planned schedule and routine – something Gonzales admitted college football coaches in particular aren’t very good at doing.
Lesesne said he shared some notes from the past season with Weir, including three general messages the fourth-year Lobos coach may share with his players.
“What are we putting energy into?” Lesesne said of the first point. “Are we putting our energy into things that we can’t control? Are we putting energy into the things that we can control? Very simple – things that we’ve heard before. The next piece is rooting ourselves in gratitude and actually being thankful for the fact that we are playing and that we are providing hope and optimism to a community, which I think both basketball programs are going to do and the football program did.
“You could see it in the two wins they had the last couple weeks. It makes people come alive to see them going and competing and represent New Mexico.”
Weir started a Thursday postgame Zoom conference call after the Lobos’ third win of the season – all played in Houston this past week – with a lengthy thank you to people who had already made it possible for his team to play at all so far, from administrators to Rice University to the players and coaches who have been away from their families.
Lesesne added another mantra his team decided to accept: “A big messaging point for us was making your plan B your plan A, and just embracing this suck – embracing this bad situation, this hard situation.”
From parking garage walk-throughs, to hotel lobby study halls, to splitting a ballroom into areas for medical training and position group meetings far enough away from each other so coaches aren’t talking over each other – Gonzales said an inability to adapt would have been doom.
“Just be flexible and adjustable when they throw something at you,” Gonzales said. “… And then if your kids see you react in a way and get all flustered, they’re gonna follow the same thing. So just roll with the punches, man. I mean, coaches don’t normally do that, but you kind of have to in this situation. And if you do, the kids are more apt to just roll with the punches themselves.”
Both coaches also took pride in the examples their teams set for others during the pandemic, from wearing masks, following the health protocols asked of them by the state and both had testing numbers suggesting if everyone in the state had followed their lead, the state might be in a better place right now in its battle with COVID-19 cases.
The example set by United was even once praised with a “shout out” by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a news conference this summer, though her office’s public comments related to most anything related to UNM and NMSU athletics proceeding with their college sports seasons out of state have often been harsh, even once asking when the NCAA and teams playing this fall and winter would “re-consider the risk and put the country first” by not proceeding with games.
New Mexico remains the only state in the country that, at a state level, prohibited college and high school sports from playing games in the pandemic. The state did allow for United to be exempt from the travel quarantine, which allowed them to return to Albuquerque between out of state matches and still practice instead of staying quarantined for 14 days. College teams are not allowed to do so now and relocated out of state as a result, but have continued to abide by New Mexico’s public health order protocols otherwise.
“New Mexico football did exactly what everybody (every college program) in the country should have done,” Gonzales said. “(Every school) should have put them into a hotel in their local town, and kept them isolated. Because what we did, we helped contribute to the stop of spreading the virus. We kept our kids safe. …
“Maybe I’m just convincing myself, you can take it whatever way you want, but we really did keep our kids safer during that time and kept the community safer.”
As for Lesesne, he was named USL co-Coach of the Year leading to the playoffs the only team in the league without a home game and, like the Lobo football team, didn’t lose one game due to COVID-19 cases on their own roster.
“We’ve had a lot of good moments in our short history,” Lesesne said. “This, by far, is the best moment because I think, if you put anyone else in the scenario, it’s going the other direction and that’s just a testament to the players for staying focused for that long amount of time. …
“So, yeah. I think it’s probably the most important and proudest moment that I’ve had leading a group for New Mexico United is what they accomplished through COVID.”