ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Even Ray Birmingham grudgingly concedes an NCAA power can’t be built overnight.
Birmingham led the University of New Mexico baseball team to a 71-45 record in his first two years as head coach, and the Lobos were Mountain West Conference runners-up last season. Still, the fiery coach says, the job’s just begun.
Birmingham, who built New Mexico Junior College into a national power, wants statewide involvement and top-notch facilities for UNM baseball. He’s pursuing support for an upgraded home stadium and new locker rooms that could help make the Lobos perennial MWC and NCAA contenders.
“Building a park and getting the funds to run our program the right way, those things are huge to me,” Birmingham said. “We can get the NCAAs occasionally the way things are now, but we can’t jump to that level consistently. I’m committed to getting us there.”
UNM will give Birmingham additional time to pursue program construction. The school recently extended his contract for three years through 2015.
Because of a university-wide wage freeze, Birmingham’s extension does not include a raise. He’ll continue to earn his base salary of $96,900.
“I’m not looking for more money or to hang onto my job,” he said during a break at UNM’s Elite Player Camp this week. “The thing is, I’m out asking for commitments from players and members of the community. This shows the University of New Mexico is committed to our program and we’re not going anywhere.”
Birmingham’s vision for the program includes home games played at a dramatically upgraded Lobo Field, located just south of the Pit. The Lobos currently share Isotopes Park with Albuquerque’s Triple-A professional franchise. While he admits the stadium is an outstanding baseball venue, Birmingham says the arrangement is not ideal.
UNM is not allowed to take batting or fielding practice at Isotopes Park, must bring and remove its equipment for each game and has to schedule around Pacific Coast League games. College baseball crowds of 1,500 or 2,000 people also appear sparse at spacious Isotopes Park.
“We just need our own facilities,” Birmingham said. “TCU, UNLV, San Diego State and BYU all have facilities and financing better than ours right now. That makes things tough.”
UNM athletics director Paul Krebs said a new baseball field is not on the school’s front burner with multi-million-dollar renovations to the Pit under way. However, plans for a new baseball stadium have already been drawn.
“It’s more than a dream,” Krebs said. “We have a concept and a plan in place, but they’re totally contingent on raising private dollars. We have found some interest out there too, but the facility can’t be constructed until we have commitments in place.”
Birmingham said UNM’s plans call for a roughly 4,000-seat park with a grass berm area that would allow additional seating. He’s pitched the idea to several business owners around the state and believes financing will fall into place as the national economy improves.
Krebs said Birmingham has already begun to generate support for the stadium project.
“Ray’s done a great job and he’s a very likable guy,” Krebs said. “He has a lot of connections throughout the region, and people are very willing to support Ray and Lobo baseball. We don’t have a timeline yet, but I can definitely see this getting done.”
FRANKLIN EXTENDED: UNM also recently extended the contract of cross country and track-and-field coach Joe Franklin through 2015. Franklin will continue to receive his base salary of $86,700.
Franklin is in charge of both men’s and women’s teams in cross country, indoor and outdoor track. He led the Lobos to their first MWC championship in women’s cross country last season. The team went on to finish second at regionals and advance to its first NCAA meet since 1985. In indoor track, UNM’s men finished second in the MWC, while the women’s team finished fifth.
UNM also recently extended the contract of volleyball coach Jeff Nelson.
“These are coaches who have elevated their programs competitively and have become a strong presence in the community and the state,” Krebs said of Birmingham, Franklin and Nelson. “We are not increasing their salaries, but we are providing continuity to their programs by sending a message that they are in charge and they will be Lobos for quite a while.”