Face to face with Danny Gonzales: A man of faith and football - Albuquerque Journal

Face to face with Danny Gonzales: A man of faith and football

UNM Coach Danny Gonzales greets players before a conditioning session at the Mesa del Sol hills. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

 

Danny Gonzales looks out over the turf from his office in the University of New Mexico football complex and sees a future that looks a lot different from the recent past.

The last time UNM played an official game on its home field was a chilly November evening in 2019 with perhaps 1,200 die-hard fans in the stands. Never mind the official attendance of 11,611. A lot of people who paid for tickets decided it wasn’t worth venturing out in the cold to watch bad football as the Lobos fell to Utah State for their ninth straight loss.

UNM football Coach Danny Gonzales in his office last month, two weeks before the Aug. 3 start of fall camp. (Kent Walz/Albuquerque Journal)

Gonzales, an Albuquerque native who played and coached football at UNM, knows all too well the hard times Lobo football had fallen on, watching from successful coaching positions at San Diego State and Arizona State University as the Lobos labored in futility year after year.

But the second-year UNM head coach, whose entire first season was spent in exile operating out of Las Vegas, Nevada, because of this state’s COVID-19 protocols, is adamant about this: He believes that the time will come when attendance at University Stadium is typically closer to the 39,000-seat capacity and that on occasion more than 44,000 people will pack the place the way they did for the game against New Mexico State University back in 2005 – when Gonzales was on the UNM coaching staff.

Gonzales pulls no punches talking about his goals. It’s not about “respectability.” It’s about winning championships. Lofty aspirations, but Gonzales is a man of faith. Faith in God, faith in his coaching staff, faith in his players and faith in a community he believes will support Lobo football.

“If you put a good product on the field that plays hard and wins games, there will be 35,000 in this stadium,” he said. “That means good kids who work hard who aren’t getting in trouble. If they play their tails off and win more than they lose, we’ll have plenty of people here to watch us.”

Started in soccer

Gonzales started his high school sports career as a soccer player. He was playing soccer at Valley High School when a friend on the team went over to kick some balls for the football team. Gonzales tagged along. “I tried it and decided I didn’t want to just kick. I wanted to play football.”

They let him suit up, he realized he had some talent, and he ended up playing running back. Gonzales broke his leg playing soccer and eventually gave it up but played football all four years and “loved it.”

He still has a special place in his heart for high school football. “Friday nights were some of the best times of my life.”

“When they asked to put the New Mexico State game on Friday night, I said ‘no.’ September Friday nights belong to high school football, and I’m going to support that as much as I can. There may be times there is no choice, but if we have the option, we won’t play on Friday nights.”

Gonzales walked on at UNM, where he played safety and punted. (Fit and athletic-looking, he still kicks the ball around in practice and can bang a punt 45 to 50 yards downfield.)

He roomed on the road with Lobo great Brian Urlacher – a close friend with whom he talks every couple of weeks. As intense then as he is now, Gonzales lettered three years and was the 1998 winner of the Chuck Cummings Memorial Award for morale and spirit and was the Lobo Club First Team Award winner for unselfish devotion to the team.

He was either a player or coaching assistant under Rocky Long from the time Long – an all-conference quarterback in his Lobo playing days – was hired in 1998 until he was forced out by then-Athletics Director Paul Krebs at the end of the 2008 season.

When Long got his walking papers, so did Gonzales and the rest of the staff. Gonzales did a stint at Lobo Energy on the UNM campus. That’s when he met wife, Sandra, a dental hygienist.

“The first time we met, it was a regular appointment, and I thought she was really cool. But I didn’t act. When I went back again, I asked, ‘Do I really have to wait six months so see you again?’ She gave in.” The couple have four children.

But after years of playing and coaching football, Gonzales admittedly was at loose ends working at Lobo Energy.

He reunited with Long for the 2011 season at San Diego State, signing on as a defensive assistant. He eventually became defensive coordinator. And his first move after being named head coach at UNM was to coax Long to come back to “our school” as defensive coordinator after a successful head coaching career at San Diego State.

Getting let go by UNM was a shock for Gonzales. “I’d been on the coaching staff in some capacity for 10 years, and it was my only experience. But had that not happened, there’s no way I’d have been prepared to have this opportunity today.”

Full circle, he’s now head coach at the same school that bounced him out the door.

“I’m a big believer that God has a plan and it’s what it’s supposed to be. Meeting Sandra, that was part of God’s plan.”

Faith was something he and Sandra shared when they met, and “as a family we are very big on our faith,” Gonzales said, adding that they attend Calvary Chapel every Sunday. “Spiritual leadership in your life is very important.”

Gonzales, 45, says he and sisters Tami and JoAnna grew up in a “very strong faith-based household” and “have only grown stronger as adults.” Dad Ray owned three Firestone stores, and mom Becky owned a truck rental company and “was an amazing artist.” She died a month before he was announced as UNM head coach.

“We were very blessed and never saw an argument of any kind between our parents.”

Defense at ASU

Gonzales, who has a five-year contract with what amounts to a $700,000 base salary at UNM, was defensive coordinator at Arizona State under Herm Edwards, the colorful former NFL player, coach and television commentator, when UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez came calling in his search for a successor to Bob Davie.

“I had gotten call after call from people but told them I wasn’t calling anybody. I had a great job and loved where I was at ASU. I had met Eddie once – just a handshake. Then I got a call from him, and he said he wanted to come to Phoenix and talk. We had an initial meeting that went well, and two weeks later they came back and brought President (Garnett) Stokes. We had a great conversation, and it was all about ‘are you (UNM leadership) willing to compete for championships? Because if you aren’t, I’m not interested.’ ”

They signed the deal shortly afterward.

Coach Danny Gonzales was given a book with player profiles, which he said he never opened. He wanted to make assessments firsthand. (Kent Walz/Albuquerque Journal)

Gonzales adds: “We have to win. If we don’t win, it won’t matter. They can like me, but they’ll get real tired of me if we aren’t winning – and that’s more than fair.”

Gonazles threw himself into the new job in the spring of 2019.

“There was a lot of excitement, and everything was going good. Then we get our first case of COVID in Bernalillo County, send the players off for spring break and don’t see them for 108 days. We could give them workouts, but couldn’t even watch on Zoom because of liability issues.

“I knew we were going to find the true character of our team. When I took this job, I had no idea who these kids were. I had read the Journal every day and watched some. But it was outside looking in. When I got here, everybody wanted to give me an opinion on who we had on the team. They (including AD Nuñez) gave me a book, and I never opened it. I still have it here in a drawer.

“The kids did a great job. What I did figure out is that we have a bunch of really good guys. Maybe not great football players, but we have enough talent to compete. And they want to win. They want to be successful, and they’re willing to work.

“We’ve told them all that we’re going to try to ‘out-recruit’ you. We’re going to try to find better players. So you either step up to the competition or you’re going to get left behind. And that’s OK, because it’s a competitive world.”

‘A lot of courage’

Gonzales, who has a bachelor’s in business administration and a master’s in physical education and recreation from UNM, views the fact that UNM was willing to move the entire program out of state when the governor’s orders made it impossible to play and practice in New Mexico during the pandemic shutdown as testament to the newfound will to compete at the top level.

“It took a lot of courage to do that,” he said.

“I think our administration has fulfilled all the promises made during the interview process about competing for championships. I think we proved we were willing to do that in moving our entire organization to Las Vegas for the entire season. The easy answer would have been that it was just too tough and we’re not playing and I’m sorry. And that was never the thought process around here. The thought process was we’re going to find a way to do this and keep working until we do.”

It also took a lot of grit and determination for the football team to live, practice and play out of state.

Coach Danny Gonzales directs players during the first day of spring football practice in March, when masks were required on the field. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

But even during the first five losses, there was a difference. For the first four games, the Lobos attacked the game with an energy level not seen in a long time. Then came a Thanksgiving night whipping by Utah State, 41-27, in a game UNM led at halftime. It was the low point of the season, and Gonzales recalls how he unloaded on coaches, players – and himself.

“We’re practicing terrible and playing terrible,” he recalls telling them. “So if we’re a terrible football team, that means I’m doing an awful job. And I’ll fix it. If you’re willing to come along, we’ll be just fine. If not, then you’ll separate from the program and we’ll find ones that are.”

“We’re going to prove how tough we are. If you get dinged up, find your way off the field. Don’t let anyone come and get you. If you’re almost dead, we’ll come get you. Outside of that, you better crawl off.”

Gonzales says he was asked how his post-game talk qualified as “leadership.” His reply: “I didn’t tell them they were bad people. And I had told them I’d never lie to them.”

“I don’t live in a world where everybody gets a participation trophy.”

How did the players respond?

“They showed up Monday, and it was probably the best practice we had.”

The Lobos then finished the season with wins over Wyoming and Fresno State – teams Gonzales says were better than the ones that had beaten the Lobos earlier in the year. He used 21 true freshmen during the season, including true freshman walk-on Isaiah Chavez of Rio Rancho, in the season-ending wins. Chavez was just the third true freshman to start at quarterback in an FBS game since 2013.

‘Enough’ talent

Gonzales was relaxed during the interview, during his last downtime before fall camp began Aug. 3.

The kids were working in the weight room, and the team was nearing the vaccination threshold. “I definitely encourage them to do their research. If they want to speak with doctors, those resources are there for them. I’m vaccinated, and tell them that. I tell them they need to be responsible if they are around family members and others.”

But all that’s just preparation before the Lobos take the field. Those challenges are different.

The recruiting class looks good on paper, “but you don’t really know for a couple of years.” There have been no unexpected no-shows.

As for talent?

“You have to have enough talent,” he said. “And we will have enough.”

That’s not the same as having as much or more. But Gonzales says the “great thing about football is that superior talent can be diminished by physically beating them up – nothing illegal, nothing cheap and nothing dirty – but football is a physical, mean game, and if it’s played that way, the right way, you can really equalize the talent gap.”

Gonzales subscribes to Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy’s emphasis on the importance of character and says in that regard “our best recruiters are the kids on your team.”

“When your kids take a recruit out while on a visit and come back and say that guy’s no good; we don’t want him around, then you better not sign him. Your kids will do a good job of eliminating bad apples.”

‘Sprint to the finish’

The Lobos open at home on Sept. 2 against Houston Baptist, then host NMSU the next week. After that, a road game looms against SEC powerhouse Texas A&M.

“They (A&M) are significantly more talented than we are. … I’ve told our team that. But we have talked that if you’re physically willing, tough enough, you can make a game competitive.”

At the end of the day, Gonzales views his mission here as a marathon, not a sprint, based on certain principles.

“Everything we do is built on three things: Be on time, be respectful and compete at everything you do – in the classroom, the weight room, the meeting room, and when you get on the football field, you leave everything on the grass that you possibly have. If we do those three things, we’ll be fine.”

Actually, he believes it will be more than fine.

“We have a ways to go to build this to be what true Lobo fans want it to be. … And we’ll get there.”

“We will sprint to the finish,” he said, “and we’re going to paint this town cherry. I’m a big believer in that.”

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