Before a global pandemic led to last year’s Rio Grande Rivalry football game being shelved, the football and men’s basketball versions of the in-state rivalry had been played every year since the end of World War II.
Since the restart of the rivalry in 1946, 33 men – 16 at New Mexico State University and 17 at the University of New Mexico – have coached this state’s two top college football programs.
Only two of them – UNM’s Danny Gonzales and NMSU’s Jim Bradley – were actually born in New Mexico, having the emotion the rivalry ingrained into their DNA as passionate sports fans since birth.
And neither apologized for a very public disliking of the in-state rivals when it came to playing each other.
Gonzales was born in Albuquerque, grew up a diehard Lobo fan, played for UNM and is now coaching the home team in Saturday’s rivalry renewal against Aggies.
His blood is unquestionably a shade of cherry.
“I don’t like those guys,” Gonzales said earlier this week. “I don’t like New Mexico State. I don’t. I played here; I grew up here in Albuquerque. And that’s just what it is. It’s who I am.”
Bradley was born and raised in Las Cruces before becoming a two-way Aggie star on the field in the 1950s and coaching them in the 1970s, when he was responsible for leading the effort to build Aggie Memorial Stadium. He also won a conference title in 1976 before later becoming one of New Mexico’s winningest, and most outspoken, high school football coaches.
His blood was unquestionably a shade of crimson to the end. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 82, but not before instilling a major lesson in his family.
“Oh yeah, we hate the Lobos,” son Gary Bradley told the Journal earlier this week.
Gary, the youngest of Jim’s children who was able to win state titles on the same coaching staff at Mayfield High School as his dad and brother, Michael, now coaches in Carlsbad.
He laughed at the notion that some people have been surprised or even off put by Gonzales’ open dislike this week for the Aggies.
“It’s supposed to be that way,” Gary Bradley said. “I’ll tell you what, I love that Danny is coaching at UNM. He recruits New Mexico kids. Heck, one of our (Carlsbad) kids is on their team (long snapper Isaiah Perez). And Rocky (Long, UNM’s defensive coordinator) used to always recruit our Las Cruces kids. I respect that. I hope Danny wins a lot of games there.
“But not this week. I hope the Aggies run it up on them.”
Bulletin board material?
Gonzales, who has paid plenty of respect to NMSU coach Doug Martin, isn’t a believer that anything he says will actually mean anything for the Aggies.
“I promise you they’re going to come up here ready to play, ready to beat the Lobos and that’s what it should be,” he said. “… It might be bulletin board material; that’s fine. This is a rivalry. They shouldn’t need to read something on a board to figure out how important this game is.”
Bradley was of a similar opinion after an Oct. 30, 1976, win over UNM that followed a week of trash talk.
“I don’t think the newspaper stories had anything to do with getting up for the game,” he was quoted saying in the Journal. “Our players were up because it was the Lobos.”
Memories that last
Gonzales often shows off a photographic memory of childhood sports memories. And when those memories involve Lobo football, he can get a little worked up.
When NMSU’s 1999 win over the Lobos in Albuquerque was mentioned in a recent interview with the Journal, a game in which Gonzales was a UNM graduate assistant, he quickly rattled off multiple plays that day that had more to do with the outcome than the late punt Brian Urlacher fumbled away, which many remember.
But he has also held close the handling of the matter after the game by his mentor.
“Coach Long’s first question – I’ll never forget this press conference,” Gonzales said, “before anybody says anything, he says, ‘Anybody want to know why Brian Urlacher was back there on that last punt? Because he’s our best player. That’s why he was back there. Next question.'”
In a preview to the 1977 rivalry, Bradley recounted his 90-yard touchdown run (still an Aggies record) in his final college game – a 39-27 loss at UNM on Nov. 20, 1954.
“That was the time of two-way football,” Bradley recalled. “The Governor (Jerry Apodaca, a former Lobo, future New Mexico Governor and longtime close friend of Bradley) went both ways and he had just run for a touchdown that was called back. We took over on the 10-yard line. It was a trap play and I hit up the middle and cut to the right. … The Governor chased me but he couldn’t catch me.”
How accurate was he?
“Jerry Apodaca roared 68 yards around end … but red hankies held precedence over the exhibitions,” reads the Nov. 21, 1954, Journal recap.
“Bradley simply outran the entire Lobo aggregation on his 90-yd. scamper as one tackler after another tried but failed to corral the fleet back as he raced down the west sidelines.”
While Gonzales and Bradley are the only two New Mexico born men of the 33 post-World War II Lobo or Aggie coaches, there was one other — only one — who also played for either team before coaching.
Rocky Long, Gonzales’ mentor, former Lobo quarterback and current UNM defensive coordinator was known to keep his Lobos in a hotel in nearby El Paso before the alternate-year rivalry games played in Las Cruces.
And when he was San Diego State’s coach and played NMSU in 2019, he told reporters at the preseason Mountain West media days he planned to do the same.
“We’re staying in El Paso because I refuse to spend a dime in Las Cruces,” Long said.
The reality is most teams that fly into El Paso for NMSU games stay there anyway, so Long’s stance as the Aztecs coach was likely more about logistics than rivalry.
“But it sounds better the other way, doesn’t it?” Long admitted in that July 2019 media day media scrum.
Time to play
After Saturday, Gonzales will still recruit kids from Las Cruces. He’ll even still talk with NMSU graduates, even those in the media.
But right now, he’s not pretending to like his neighbors to the south.
“It’s important to me and that’s just who I am,” Gonzales said. “And I’m not changing.”
As much as it would pain both to know, Bradley and Gonzales share that bond, even in a rivalry week.