Summer road trips in the car can bring members of a family together, or rip them apart.
For the New Mexico State Athletics Department and its traveling road show, this week introducing supporters from Gallup to Santa Fe to Albuquerque to the trifecta of new marquee Aggies sports coaches — Jerry Kill in football, Greg Heiar in men’s basketball and Jodi Adams-Birch in women’s basketball — the rookies seemed to catch on pretty quick.
“I’ve been on this trip now with Jodi and coach Kill now, and we’ve had an unbelievable time together,” said Heiar. He has been on the job a grand total of 37 days as the man tasked with replacing Chris Jans, who coached the New Mexico State men in March to an NCAA Tournament victory.
“When Mario (athletic dDirector Mario Moccia) gave me this opportunity, I honestly did not know what I was getting into. But these last 48 hours together with these coaches is why I’m here, and why we’re together. I mean, we’ve had the time of our lives the last few days, and I’m big on family.”
The united front of the three new coaches, and maybe more specifically capitalizing on the energy Aggies fans seem to be feeling this spring with that united front, is what Moccia is hoping can put another spark into what has already been a strong year of fundraising for the department. That is happening even in a year when the Aggies might not be able to balance its budget as it has done in 11 of the past 12 years.
“I think it’s been a reinvigoration,” said Thursday’s emcee and 42-year NMSU Aggies radio play-by-play broadcaster Jack Nixon.
“It could have been looked at it like, ‘Oh my gosh. These people are gone. What are we going to do? All hope is lost.’ But people are excited.”
Thursday’s event held at Nativo Lodge, with a couple hundred supporters on hand, was more than just a meet and greet, but also a pep rally of sorts with Moccia serving as the numbers guy.
He let all know about the positive academic achievements and financial milestones the program has achieved, including the highly successful “stock sale” fundraiser that generated $250,000 for football since Kill was hired to succeed Doug Martin.
The team-specific fundraising account the day Kill was hired was $0, Moccia noted.
He also noted there’s still a long way to go for all NMSU sports and facilities before the school joins Conference USA for the 2023-24 academic year.
There’s no reason, the Aggie front men and women preached this week and at Thursday night’s event, that even NMSU can’t compete in every sport. But it takes letting everyone know what Aggies really are — loyal, hardworking and determined.
“I’ve been told twice in my life I had no chance to live,” Kill, a two-time cancer survivor who also suffered from epilepsy, said.
“And let me tell you something, when you have that told to you, there’s some (expletive) that goes on in your mind. … All I can tell you is this. I will give you everything I got. I may die on a football field, and if I do, that’s where I want to go right there. I love this game. I love people. I’ll do anything for you. And I won’t apologize for that.”
And while Cowboy Kill stole the show with his bring on the world pep talk, folksy charm and highly Aggie-relatable quips — “Hell, I was drinking beer and bailin’ hay when I was 14 years-old,” he said at one point — Adams-Birch showed this wasn’t her first rodeo working a room of supporters, either.
The 27-year coaching veteran with 185 Division I wins to her credit and the crash course education she got from one of the game’s icons in Pat Summitt while she was the starting point guard on the 1991 NCAA Women’s National Champion Tennessee Lady Vols, did well in making everyone feel like part of the family.
She opened her remarks inviting Dr. Smoky Glass Torgerson up to thank her for a phone call they had when she was first hired. Torgerson just so happens to be a huge supporter of Aggies Athletics and earlier this month was awarded an honorary doctorate at NMSU after years of work as a board member on the NMSU Foundation.
She then went on to explain the importance of everyone in the room — from the biggest supporters to the smallest — getting involved.
“Winning is in the roots here,” she said.
“It’s not like we’re coming and starting from the ground up. It’s here. So, I know together, we’re better. So let’s stay together. Let’s stick together. And let’s just continue to empower each other and give each other all of that we can.”
NOTE: Speaking of the hard-nosed, chip on their shoulder type players he says will line his roster, Kill introduced Albuquerque Aggie fans to one of their own on Thursday in St. Pius graduate Diego Pavia.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound quarterback transfer who led New Mexico Military Institute to a junior college national championship last season, broke spring drills at NMSU as one of the two players expected to compete in the fall to be the Aggies starting quarterback.