Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Moments after his University of New Mexico football team suffered its fifth straight loss of an unprecedented 2020 season, coach Danny Gonzales delivered sharp criticism to the Lobos and then told the media about it afterward.
Reporters in a virtual press conference wanted to know why UNM fell apart in the third quarter to Utah State on Thanksgiving when the Aggies reeled off 28 unanswered points in a span of 7 minutes en route to a 41-27 win.
“We’re a terrible football team,” Gonzales said, and later added: “We’re a very mentally weak football team. We don’t handle adversity very well.”
The comments revealed a frustrated coach, but it also offered a glimpse into Gonzales’ coaching style. He’s brutally honest with his players. Gonzales, even then in his first year as coach, said he had no fear of putting down the Lobos even if it meant possibly losing connection or relationships with players.
“The reason I wasn’t afraid to tell them that is because I told them from day one I’ll never lie to them,” said Gonzales, who wrapped up the first week of spring football with the Lobos on Saturday. “That doesn’t mean I know everything. It means I have an opinion and my opinion is in great favor of this football team.”
The Lobos responded with a win over heavily favored Wyoming and then another victory the following week against Fresno State to close out a wild and challenging 2-5 season that included a six-week stay in Las Vegas, Nevada, because of the COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico.
“As a team, we kind of took offense to it,” UNM quarterback Isaiah Chavez said of the Lobos being called “terrible” by the coach.
“To be honest I felt that, too. We weren’t clicking on offense. We weren’t clicking on defense. Everyone took offense to that. Then we started practicing like we’re a team. I think he did a little bit of a reverse psychology on us, but it definitely worked.”
Chavez, who began 2020 as a fifth-string freshman quarterback out of Rio Rancho High, led the Lobos to those closing victories. In a way, he is similar to his head coach. Both came to the Lobos as a walk-on. Chavez, also much like Gonzales, is known for his leadership, positivity and unwavering confidence.
Gonzales, a Valley High graduate, showed those traits, along with a never-quit attitude, when he was a player for the Lobos and then an assistant under then-head coach Rocky Long, now UNM’s defensive coordinator.
“When he was a player, he was that way,” Long said of Gonzales’ seemingly constant optimism. “When he was in charge of the film room he was that way. And, when he became an assistant coach he was that way. His personality hasn’t changed from the first day I met him. It’s a good characteristic, especially in the coaching business.”
Gonzales refers to himself as a glass-half-full kind of guy, and that was needed after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out spring football last year, then later forced a delay to the season and a relocation to a hotel in Henderson, Nevada, to play out the shortened schedule.
The Lobos’ estimated expenses for relocating came out to $611,864.90 for accommodations, meals, ground transportation and facility rental fees, according to a UNM Athletics memo to state lawmakers last month that was for a Legislative Finance Committee hearing on state money UNM receives.
Gonzales believes it was money well spent. The stay in Nevada resulted in the Lobos forming a strong bond, he said. He has also reminded the media more than once the payoff UNM is bound to receive from TV contracts. It’s an estimate of at least $3 million for Mountain West Conference teams. Payouts from the College Football Playoff and college bowl games could produce an estimate of at least $1 million, UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said in November.
Gonzales’ youngest daughter, Abby, a child with Down syndrome, turned 7 last week. When she visits Gonzales’ dad, Grandpa Ray, the little girl asks him, “Where’s Grandmama?”
Gonzales’ mother, Becky, unexpectedly died on Nov. 16, 2019, about a month before Gonzales was hired at his alma mater. She went to the hospital for a surgical procedure and never came out, Gonzales said.
When Abby asks her Grandpa where’s Grandmama, Ray says: “Baby, she’s up in heaven. She’s watching over us.”
“I know she’s watching over us, as proud as can be, happy, and will be excited to see us play in our stadium in September,” Gonzales said. “It’s good knowing that. Because we are so strong in our faith, that helps us deal with it. But it makes me sad because she shouldn’t be gone.”
Gonzales, 45, believes it was God’s plan that he became the Lobos’ head coach, and that he’s where he’s supposed to be: home.
His two sisters, Tami Howes and JoAnna Salazar, also live in Albuquerque. Tami’s husband, David Howes, is on the UNM staff as the safeties coach.
The parents of Gonzales’ wife, Sandra, also live in Albuquerque, as does Grandpa Ray. Sandra’s older brother, David Garcia, also lives in town.
Gonzales’ family also includes daughter Chloe, 8, and son Cole, 22, who also lives in the Duke City. Jake, 20, is a junior at Arizona State University’s Barrett, the Honors College, a four-year residential college.
Gonzales calls Cole and Jake his sons. They’re actually his stepsons; their father is Todd Forsythe, fire chief for the Los Alamos Fire Department.
“We all have a great relationship, a great family dynamic,” Gonzales said.
When Gonzales left for Las Vegas for the season, it was challenging for his family, Sandra said.
“He does everything for us,” Sandra said. “In the morning, he gets the girls’ lunches ready before he goes to work. He gets the dogs fed before he goes to work. He gets my water bottle ready. I go to the gym after dropping off the girls for school. I missed that. He spoils me. I’m his biggest fan. He’s my biggest fan.”
Gonzales is detail-oriented and enjoys a routine, Sandra said. His family greatly appreciates those attributes.
“Initially it was challenging,” Sandra said of Gonzales going to Las Vegas. “Thank goodness for FaceTime. The girls had a hard time with him gone. Every morning, Abby would ask: ‘When’s Daddy coming home? Where’s Daddy?’ But we got used to it. We got used to our routine of FaceTiming as often as possible.”
Gonzales took offense to a reporter who asked running back Nate Jones what it was like to play in his first game “at the midcollege level,” against Hawaii on Nov. 7. A few days later, Gonzales let that reporter know how he felt during a virtual press conference.
“I’ll say this: Group of Five we are,” Gonzales said. “By the time I’m done here they’re either going to fire me or we are going to be a top 25 team that beats any Power Five team that wants to come play us.”
Gonzales’ comments showed that he cares about his players, because Gonzales said Jones was also offended. But Gonzales is also no-nonsense. Jones is not in spring football at this time because “he’s not meeting expectations,” Gonzales said, declining to be more specific about Jones’ absence.
Gonzales arrived back home in Albuquerque at his alma mater after leaving Arizona State, where he worked for two years as the Sun Devils’ defensive coordinator. During his introductory press conference in December 2019, he vowed to turn UNM into a winner and lead the Lobos to a fifth conference championship.
“I knew when I hired him he wasn’t going to be here very long,” ASU head coach Herm Edwards said. “I knew, he’s going to have the ability to be a head coach. To go back to his alma mater that’s a thrill for him and his family. There are good things headed their way with him at the helm. It’s just a matter of giving him the opportunity to build the program.”
Edwards said he hired Gonzales initially because of his ability to get his players to play hard. He can connect with players, which also makes Gonzales a great recruiter, Edwards said.
Long said the same. He knew all along Gonzales would become a head coach. In fact, Long predicted Gonzales would be the Lobos’ head coach when he told the Journal such in 2006.
“He’s got all the right traits,” Long said last week of Gonzales. “He’s really, really smart. He communicates really well with this age group. He has the right balance of being tough and demanding on them, as well as being a mentor. That makes for a good head coach. I’m of the belief that New Mexico is a very unique special place. You better have some knowledge of the community and the culture in order to be successful here. I thought he had it way back then.”‘
The Journal’s Geoff Grammer contributed to this story.