After some re-evaluation — and maybe a little pressure — the University of New Mexico will retire former Lobo football and NFL great Brian Urlacher’s number 44 after all.
A ceremony is planned for the Lobos’ home game against Air Force on Nov. 8.
“I don’t know what was the process,” Urlacher told the Journal Tuesday. “But anytime you get honored, it’s a big deal. I have a lot of respect for people in New Mexico.”
Urlacher, from Lovington, had an incredible career at UNM from 1996-99. He led the nation in tackles in 1998. In 1999, he led the Mountain West in tackles — while scoring a team-high seven touchdowns. The Chicago Bears took him with the ninth overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year honor that season and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He retired last summer after 13 years with the Bears, in which he made eight Pro Bowls.
Last week, UNM announced it would “retire Urlacher’s jersey” at the Air Force game, but not his No. 44. UNM said the number could be used with special permission.
That apparently caused some confusion, and controversy. After all, what exactly is retiring a jersey without retiring the number?
“There’s no significance to that,” says Ron Wallace, who played for the Lobos from 1972-76. “When I first heard about it, I thought they were gonna take the number off the market. Retire the jersey? We all get to keep our jerseys after our senior year anyway. So what are they retiring?”
Former Lobo golfer Sean Murphy, who grew up in Lovington with Urlacher and remains a close friend, called the jersey retiring plan “an underhanded compliment. All that would do is put Brian on the defensive. Every time another player was out there wearing 44, he’d get hundreds of phone calls asking why. Then he’d have to explain that they didn’t retire his number, just his jersey. It’s ridiculous.”
On Tuesday, UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said school officials reconsidered, and will instead retire Urlacher’s number, even though it breaks school policy.
“Upon further review, we decided it’s best to probably permanently retire the number,” Krebs said.
He added that he conferred with Lobo coach Bob Davie, who agreed.
Asked if he got a lot of feedback about last week’s announcement that only the jersey would be retired, Krebs said, “I got absolutely none. I heard absolutely nothing. Not one call not one email, absolutely nothing.”
Urlacher said he didn’t learn of the school’s original plan to simply retiring his jersey until after he had already agreed to attend the Nov. 8 game.
“I had already made my plans, booked all the flights for my family,” he said. “I found out after I booked my flights what was really going on, with the jersey retirement. I thought from the beginning it was a number retirement. I found out after the fact it was only a jersey retirement.
“I had no idea what it meant. (Friend and public relations assistant) Bryce (Karger) told me they were going to retire my jersey, and I didn’t know you retired a jersey. I thought you always retired somebody’s number. I said, ‘what does that mean? I’m the one who has my jersey.’”
Urlacher said he didn’t make it an issue with UNM.
“But maybe someone I know may have put some pressure on them,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t think it should have gone that rout in the first place, but it doesn’t matter now.”
UNM’s Joseph Harris wore No. 44 from 2008-12 and said former coach Rocky Long had to convince him to do so.
“But I was glad I did,” Harris said. I thought about what an honor it was to have that number. But I agree it should be retired.”
Junior defensive end Brett Bowers now wears 44 at UNM through this coming Saturday night at San Diego State. Then, it comes off. “We’ll do something symbolic when he takes it off for the Air Force game,” Davie said.
Bowers said he has worn five numbers through high school and junior college, and he’s fine with changing numbers again. His knowledge of Urlacher is that he was “a really good linebacker in the NFL and played safety here. That’s about it.”
Davie said he plans to talk to Krebs about retiring lockers for the four ex-UNM players whose numbers have been retired —Don Perkins (43), Mike Williams (40) and Bobby Santiago (42) being the others.
“I’ll enclose them in glass enclosures, hang the jersey of each retired number, put a helmet in there, put their picture in there, put a bio and a name plate over the top of lockers.”
Davie said he understands UNM’s policy for wanting to keep as many numbers available as possible, but “my point was, Brian Urlacher’s contribution is so unique and so significant. To be honest, I don’t know if there’s going to be a whole lot of jersey numbers (retired) in the future … With 44, we should do it.”
As far as the phrasing of “retiring a jersey,” the Journal asked Krebs if saying “honoring the jersey” would have created less initial confusion.
“I guess so. In retrospect, maybe. I hadn’t really thought about it, but perhaps you’re right,” Krebs said. “The intention all along was to make it very significant, ie., put the name and number on the press box.”
The Journal’s Rick Wright contributed to this story.