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Coaching Aggies May Be College Football's Toughest Job

Shortage of Funding, Fan Apathy Have Contributed to Bleak History

 

Moments after the University of Hawaii punctuated its 59-24 thrashing of New Mexico State with its trademark haka dance on the Aggie Memorial Stadium field last November, DeWayne Walker punctuated the conclusion of his second full season as NMSU coach with some frustrated candor.

He cited the school’s facilities and a need to upgrade the weight room. He pointed out that the budget was lacking to improve recruiting on a national scale. And playmakers? The team definitely needed some.

Five wins in two seasons will have that effect.

There was plenty of reason to be frustrated, but the current plight of the NMSU football program, 1-3 for 2011 heading into Saturday’s game at New Mexico, is not unique to Walker’s tenure.

n The Aggies haven’t been to a bowl game, which these days is only a modest gauge of success — since 1960. It’s the longest current dry streak among any schools playing major college football.

n NMSU routinely underspends most of its football opponents, but not all. (See the table accompanying this story.)

n The Aggies’ home state is one of the least fruitful in producing Division I prospects. And most of those who stay in-state go to rival New Mexico.

n The fan base is lukewarm at best. NMSU routinely has one of the lowest average attendances in the country. It’s left the athletic department no choice but to schedule “money games” on the road vs. big-spending Bowl Championship Series schools to generate revenue.

The Aggies pulled a fast one in game two of this year, a 28-21 upset at Minnesota on Sept. 10 in addition to the $800,000 payout NMSU received. On Nov. 5, they will travel to Georgia for a payday of $925,000. An upset then isn’t as likely.

n The university’s bold move to the Western Athletic Conference in 2005, which required a commitment to significantly increase its athletic budget, in hindsight hasn’t panned out. Boise State’s move to the Mountain West Conference —with Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii (as a football-only member) in 2012 —has seen to that.

For these reasons and others, some would say that the NMSU coaching job is the most difficult in college football. If it isn’t, it’s a leading candidate.

“You gotta say it’s one of them. We haven’t been to a bowl game since 1960-1961,” said current athletic director McKinley Boston. “We know part of it is there hasn’t been very much investment in it.”

The Past

The Aggies last participated in postseason play in 1960, when they closed out an unbeaten Border Conference championship season with a 20-13 Sun Bowl victory over Utah State under then-coach Warren B. Woodson. He went 63-36-3 during a 10-year run at NMSU from 1958 to 1967. No Aggie coach has posted a career winning record since.

Walker, who is in the third year of a five-year contract, was much more optimistic heading into the 2011 season than he was in November.

“Rome wasn’t built in a night. It takes time,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I’ve really learned being in this situation. We have a vision, we have a plan and we just have to continue to believe that it’s going to come together at some point.”

Walker’s predecessors, Hal Mumme and Tony Samuel, took detours before they ever reached that point. So too did former athletic director Brian Faison, who presided over the program from 1997-2004, before leaving that position to become a fundraiser at the school.

Today, Mumme and Samuel are trying to resurrect small-school gridiron programs at McMurry University and Southeast Missouri, respectively. Faison is the AD at North Dakota, which is in its first year of FBS status in football this season.

Hard as it may be to fathom, think of Tony Samuel as the Aggies’ Rocky Long. Samuel’s 34-57 record during his eight years at NMSU is what passes for recent glory days in Las Cruces, but the state of his program ultimately proved unsatisfactory to NMSU brass.

In 1999, Samuel led the Aggies to a 6-5 record in the Big West, the school’s first winning record since 1992. The highlight of that campaign was a 35-7 thrashing of then-No. 22 ranked Arizona State in Tempe.

Money games were the norm during Samuel’s regime, though he admitted, “that was a tough call.”

The Aggies wouldn’t beat an opponent from a BCS conference again until the Minnesota game.

Samuel’s 2001 squad was denied a berth in the New Orleans Bowl when eventual Sun Belt champion North Texas took a heart-wrenching 22-20 victory over the Aggies in Las Cruces. The next year NMSU finished 7-5, NMSU’s best winning percentage (.583) since the Woodson days.

Two years later, the former Nebraska Cornhusker was let go after consecutive losing seasons.

“You’ve got to be patient. We’re kind of in a situation now where people aren’t patient enough,” Samuel said. “The New Mexico States of the world, a lot of times you don’t have the success because you bring a guy in and you get rid of him because he didn’t meet that mystical, magical time line that sometimes matches all the other time lines around the country. But it’s not New Mexico State’s time line.”

Samuel’s last year was also the last of the Aggies in the Sun Belt, as they began WAC play in 2005. Leading NMSU into that frontier was Mumme, who had gained a reputation for having a magic touch by guiding lightly regarded Kentucky to back-to-back bowl games.

As the first football coach during Boston’s tenure, Mumme’s Aggies piled up gaudy statistics with his Air Raid offense. Victories were much harder to come by — NMSU was 11-38 overall over his four years and won no more than two conference games in a season, despite playing less-challenging schedules than Samuel. Mumme’s signature wins were two against UTEP and an upset victory at heavily favored Nevada in 2008. That gave the Aggies a 3-2 record. They lost their final seven.

Mumme declined an interview request through the McMurry State athletic department. In an interview with the Las Cruces Sun-News this summer, while at football camps, he fashioned himself as a program builder, saying he has succeeded everywhere “but one place.”

Mumme guided the Division III Warhawks to their first winning record since 2000 last year and already owns a win this year over Texas State, coached by Dennis Franchione.

Meanwhile, Walker’s Aggies have struggled to build on the Minnesota win. Beating the Lobos on Saturday would make Walker 3-0 against NMSU’s instate rival.

The Challenges

According to the Rivals.com database, the state of New Mexico has produced no more than nine D-I signees in a single year since 2008 and just 21 overall. NMSU signed six New Mexicans during that time: three in 2011, and one each from 2008 to 2010. By comparison, the state of Texas had 409 prospects sign with major football playing schools in 2011; Colorado had 23; Arizona had 77. An NMSU coach is going to have to hit the road to have any hope of recruiting success. Finding the funding to recruit out of state always has been an issue.

“But then I’m not sure there’s any coach that’s ever satisfied with their recruiting budget,” said Faison.

Boston said that when he took over as athletic director, the operating budget for the entire athletic department was around $8 million. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, NMSU spent $5.5 million dollars on football alone in 2009, so spending has improved.

“Our goal from the very beginning was to try and get our budget, all of our sports budgets at least at the average number of WAC schools. We’ve pretty much accomplished that,” Boston said.

WAC holdovers San Jose State, Idaho, Lousiana Tech and Utah State were all in NMSU’s ballpark in terms of gridiron spending. But Boston says that state-mandated budget cuts have reduced spending over the past two years from 2009, however. Those cuts became painfully evident, when, prior to Walker’s first season in 2009, the football staff distributed a mass e-mail asking fans to donate snacks to help feed Aggie players.

“Definitely, it helps to go to bed with something in your stomach,” center Mike Grady told the Associated Press in 2009.

A new fundraising group called the Football Success Fund was recently implemented to help with money matters.

“We’re making strides,” Walker said. “The private dollars is probably more important than our budget, to be honest. We’re really trying to continue to create a brand of New Mexico State Aggie football.”

Building that brand continues to be difficult. For the home finale against Louisiana Tech in 2008 — Mumme’s last season — NMSU offered $2 tickets for any seat in Aggie Memorial Stadium. The goal then was to avoid potential banishment from the FBS for not averaging at least 15,000 fans over a two-year rolling period. NMSU drew an official number of 17,426 fans on that day, helping to keep it above the NCAA-mandated threshold. According to NCAA attendance figures released by the NCAA, the Aggies’ average attendance in 2008 was 17,756. That figure was not surpassed in either 2009 (16,511) or 2010 (15,906).

Holding Out Hope

Walker came to Las Cruces not really knowing what to expect as a first-time head coach. He believes that he can raise the bar with two full recruiting classes under his belt. The record hasn’t reflected it, but this year’s team appears to be Walker’s best to date.

Samuel talked about patience, as did Walker, who feels he deserves at least the duration of his five-year deal to see things through.

The shifting WAC landscape will bring on Texas State and Texas San Antonio in 2012. How the Aggies fare in a seemingly weaker conference will be telling.

Walker knows how difficult the coaching job is, but he isn’t asking for sympathy.

“No more pity parties. No more worrying about what everybody else has. You’ve got to figure out what you have, and you’ve got to get it done,” he said.

There are those who still insist the program has potential.

Said Samuel, “I always felt like that’s a doable place. Got that beautiful New Mexico look, you know.”

Sometimes its easiest to wax nostalgic when you’re looking through the rearview mirror.

 

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