The steel chandeliers in the lobby of the Nativo Lodge hang low over the second balcony but it’s dim. Dim enough for New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia, 55, to need a set of reading glasses for the list of topics he held.
“When I was the AD in 2015, I didn’t need cheaters,” he said, a crowd gathered around him. “Now I do.”
A caravan up from Las Cruces to Albuquerque for fans and alumni isn’t a new thing. But ever since quarterback Diego Pavia iced a 24-19 win in the Quick Lane Bowl for New Mexico State with a run up the middle, things have been different.
“The joke is that a lot of people call this place ‘Aggie-querque,'” David Oakeley, class of ’75, said.
It all played out in front of a group of Aggie alumni and fans at the Nativo on Thursday night. In celebration, Moccia, head coach Jerry Kill, quarterback Diego Pavia and several other members of the coaching staff mingled with a crowd eagerly watching projector highlights of the 2022 seasons, eating complimentary Hooters food and listening to Moccia and Kill speak in front of a crowd in a chairless room.
So, Moccia spoke. About the good things: already high donation rates and large private gifts from generous benefactors. The largest point-spread upset in college football history, coming when the Aggies routed Liberty 49-14 in November. A nice chunk of TV money on the way, compliments of NMSU’s new Conference-USA membership. The idea that more is being done with less, the Quick Lane Bowl trophy resting on a table in front of him.
And then, Moccia stepped back, looked at his sheet, looked around the room. Somewhere along the way, he locked eyes with the elephant in the room.
“I realize, there’s been a lot of negative stuff in the news… ” he said.
On November 19, New Mexico State forward Mike Peake shot and killed a 19-year-old University of New Mexico student and injured another in Albuquerque after he was lured out by four individuals looking to issue revenge for an altercation at the New Mexico-New Mexico State football game in October.
Both New Mexico-New Mexico State men’s basketball games were canceled. The Aggies and head coach Greg Heiar attracted intense scrutiny, for how the team left town, how Peake was not dismissed immediately, how a murder weapon initially ended up with a coach and not the authorities.
They played on. The Aggies, a traditional WAC power, started to lose more than they had in years. In February, allegations of hazing within the New Mexico State program came to light and a season turned into a tragedy was canceled with six games to go.
Players entered the transfer portal almost immediately, with NMSU guard Shazar Lazar stating he didn’t believe “the program that I originally committed to currently aligns with my beliefs and core values.”
Heiar was fired on February 14.
“There is nothing more I want to do than get a good feeling back to our lives, fix our problems and move forward,” Moccia said to the crowd.
Circumstances like that turn nights like Aggie-querque from a celebration to a temperature check. Pregnant pauses end up going in directions people never thought they’d ended up in, a cloud sagging over a cash bar and trays of chicken wings.
“As you know,” Oakeley said, “we’ve had a few bumps in the road.”
Scott Shannon, class of 1999, lives in Rio Rancho. Leaning on a post towards the middle of the room, he remembered the gloriously plucky NMSU basketball teams of the late 1990s and the football team struggling as always.
“To see it flipped where football’s the pride and joy of being an Aggie is really cool,” he said, “but also a little weird.”
Shannon said he came out on Thursday to support the team and celebrate something positive, after everything with the basketball team made for an “embarrassing” couple of months.
“But it is what it is at this point,” he said.
Shannon said he felt the university has handled what’s happened with New Mexico State basketball “as best as they could,” although he thought they could’ve done some things differently at the start.
In a new coach, he’d like somebody with a clean slate and a proven track record of winning.
“And (somebody who can) do what Jerry’s done for football,” he said. “Bring the enthusiasm, the excitement back to the program and, I don’t know if it’s possible, but a quick turnaround.”
Tierney Staley, class of 2018, concurred with Shannon’s assessment of what he’d like to seee. So did Timothy Frederick, 41, who took three of his sons out to the Nativo and got a picture with Moccia and the trophy.
After spending his first two years of college at New Mexico State, Frederick transferred to Eastern New Mexico and graduated in 2004. Those first two years in Las Cruces, he and a buddy got into football games for free. When the Aggies made the Arizona Bowl in 2017, he made it a point to get out to the program’s first bowl appearance since the 1960s.
“We have waited forever for football to just sort of be on the rise it’s on now,” he said. “Basketball, we’re gonna get it right.”
Frederick considers what happened with the basketball team to be an “aberration”. He wanted current Mississippi State assistant and former New Mexico State assistant James Miller to take over following Chris Jans departure, but he trusts Moccia to steer things back in the right direction.
“I’m not down on the program,” he said. “I know we let go of our baseball coach today as well. But Mario, if you look at his track record, he has a tendency to make great hires.”
It’s quiet on the second floor of the Nativo. Moccia stands at a table eating wings as the last of the party files out, empty cans of Pistol Pete’s 1888 mixed up with red and white shakers, cowbells and wing plates.
“While tonight was solely – or almost solely – about football, the bowl game and the success of Jerry Kill, you certainly have to address it,” he said. “And let people know that a) we take it very seriously and b) we are very committed, especially me as an alum, to get it fixed.”
It’s still dim. Moccia stands on one side of the room. The trophy sits on a table on the other.
“There’s a lot of great stories in Las Cruces,” he said, “and they have been overshadowed by a very significant event.”