There were no cheerleaders.
The sounds of a marching band playing a fight song weren’t echoing through the Hotel Albuquerque halls.
And Lobo Louie was nowhere to be found lingering around the spacious Alvarado Ballroom on Wednesday morning.
But there was very much a pep-rally feel to the latest Economic Forum of Albuquerque breakfast speaker series. University of New Mexico football coach Danny Gonzales and new men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino made their pitch to the business leaders of the city to jump on board, again, in support of Lobo athletics.
“We talk about wanting to be big time,” Gonzales said. “It can be big time. The only way it can be big time is everybody in this room and everybody in this city to get involved. … We’re sitting on the verge of something that is about to explode around here.”
Deputy athletic director David Williams, essentially the morning’s opener for the Pitino/Gonzales main act, set the table for a theme of alignment within the athletic department and campus community as a whole that has been years in the making, but started to finally net visible results in recent months.
Among those visible wins:
• Six Mountain West championships in 2021 despite New Mexico facing more COVID-19 restrictions than any other Division I program in the country that still competed;
• Increasing public camaraderie and support UNM coaches and players began showing for each other this past year;
• An athletic department-wide 3.36 spring semester grade-point average announced on Wednesday (third best in program history, UNM says) and 3.35 cumulative GPA for the school year (second best).
Pitino, who has certainly had his share of being around successful basketball, said he wouldn’t have come to UNM without first seeing the potential for not only his program, but department-wide.
“You don’t have to remind me every time I see you,” Pitino said, “I know that you love basketball. The guy at Starbucks this morning told me how much he loves basketball.”
Pitino noted that while he’s just 38 years old, he is already in his 20th year in college basketball coaching – giving him a good understanding of what it takes to win consistently, and where that is possible.
When he interviewed for the UNM job, he said, that possibility became clear immediately.
“I felt that there was a clear-cut vision of what it is we want to do,” Pitino said. “The number one thing that (athletic director) Eddie Nuñez and Dave (Williams) said to me when we met (about the job) was we need alignment in the athletic department. They didn’t talk about winning. They really didn’t. They talked about supporting the head coaches.”
Seven Lobo head coaches attended Wednesday: Gonzales and Pitino, new baseball coach Tod Brown and four coaches who, since March, won Mountain West championships – Heather Dyche (women’s soccer), Joe Franklin (cross country and track & field), Jill Trujillo (women’s golf) and Glen Millican (men’s golf). Men’s tennis (Ben Dunbar) and women’s basketball (Mike Bradbury) are the other two 2021 MWC champion coaches at UNM. They were not in attendance on Wednesday.
All the coaches in attendance were asked to stand and received an ovation for bringing hardware back to the UNM trophy case in what most understand was an extraordinarily difficult year because of the pandemic.
“The six sports that won championships in the spring – not many people know this,” Gonzales said. “The athletic department made a decision in August to send every student-athlete that was not a football player home. ‘We can’t have you around and widen our bubble. We need a smaller bubble, so we are going to only have the football team on campus and hopefully they have an opportunity to play.'”
He went on to explain that had UNM not played football, it would have lost out on nearly $4 million in TV contract money from the league. So trying to keep just those athletes on campus – and COVID free – led to all other athletes for much of the fall being sent off campus while their sports were pushed to spring. Men’s and women’s basketball started later than normal.
“Not one of those coaches complained,” Gonzales said. “Not one of those coaches said this is not fair. They just said, ‘OK. We’ll do what we have to do.’ They didn’t train (together). They didn’t practice together. But guess what? We won the most championships in the Mountain West Conference in the spring because of their dedication and what they were willing to do.”