Aggies-Lobos: A state divided

Ray Birmingham as a student teacher at New Mexico State in 1978. (Courtesy of Ray Birmingham)

It began Tuesday with New Mexico State winning in volleyball. On Saturday, host New Mexico and NMSU play football, for the 106th time.

It’s Rivalry Week.

From this corner, it always has been a dissatisfying cliché that suggests any group of fans are born that way, that this group bleeds Cherry, the other Crimson. If that really were true, a few of them occasionally have had to bleed out and undergo transfusions.

For example, this week the Journal spoke to five people prominently and currently involved in New Mexico or New Mexico State athletics, each of whom has been on the other side.

In alphabetical order, they are Ray Birmingham, Lobos baseball coach and NMSU alum; Jason Lenzmeier, offensive line coach at his alma mater UNM after a stint performing the same job in Las Cruces; Brandon Mason, a former Aggie basketball standout who went on to UNM’s staff and now is back at NMSU as an assistant coach; Mario Moccia, NMSU athletic director who cut his teeth in UNM athletics under former AD Rudy Davalos; and Yvonne Sanchez, a women’s basketball assistant coach at NMSU before embarking on a long career with her hometown UNM program.

Having been both Aggies and Lobos at stages in their lives gives them a unique perspective on this often intense, often fun, and always colorful rivalry.

— Randy Harrison

Graduated from New Mexico State in 1978, became head coach of the Lobos in 2008 after two seasons with College of the Southwest and 18 straight winning seasons with New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, where Birmingham grew up. Has a record of 272-201-1 with UNM and a career record of 1,090-529-3.

Although Ray Birmingham was born in Arkansas, he considers himself a New Mexican. And at one point the Lobo baseball boss considered himself an Aggie, although he never played baseball at the school.

Now, Birmingham is all Lobo but the rivalry with the Aggies hasn’t taken shape on the baseball field the same way it has in other sports. At least for the Lobos. While New Mexico State seemed to really want to beat the Lobos, Birmingham and his team just wanted to win a game.

“When I first came (to UNM) Rocky (Ward) was there and they would have a big crowd for those games,” Birmingham said. “I don’t know why but they would save their best pitching for us on Tuesdays where we throwing our No. 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 guys. That game was a big deal for them. It really wasn’t a rivalry like football and basketball. They wanted to beat us but, those games were important, we were not going to sacrifice our pitching to beat them.”

As for football, Birmingham — who moved to Hobbs when he was two-years-old — said the game between UNM and NMSU is good for the state but improvement in the state of the programs could make it so more is at stake and add more sizzle.

“I like the rivalry and I like the competition,” Birmingham said. “I’m a New Mexican first and I like the fact that it’s an instate rivalry and it’s about the state of New Mexico. I wish both schools were better at football though so it would have a little more ring to it. If a championship were on the line, that’d be really cool.”

— Kevin Hendricks

Played offensive tackle for UNM from 2000-03, a first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection as a senior. Was a UNM graduate assistant in 2006 and the Lobos’ O-line coach from 2007-08. From 2009-11, was NMSU’s O-line coach. He returned to UNM in that capacity in 2012.

In 13 years immersed in the rivalry as a player and coach, Lenzmeier has been on the losing side only once. In 2002, his junior year, the Aggies beat the Lobos 24-13 in Las Cruces.

He recalls it all too well.

“We came back on the bus from Las Cruces and didn’t say a word the entire way,” he said.

That night, the postgame media interview with Lobos coach Rocky Long was as tense as it was brief.

“You should have heard the team meeting,” Lenzmeier said.

Seven years later, having been hired by NMSU after Long resigned at UNM, Lenzmeier walked onto the University Stadium turf in Albuquerque as New Mexico State’s offensive line coach — intent on helping the Aggies beat players he’d recruited and coached at New Mexico. The Aggies did just that, and beat the Lobos in 2010-11 as well.

In 2012, he walked onto the Aggie Memorial Stadium turf as New Mexico’s O-line coach — staring across the field at NMSU players he’d recruited and coached. The Lobos won that game and now have beaten the Aggies three straight times.

In both situations, he said, “You feel for those kids. Everybody can’t win; that’s not how it’s set up. But we’ve just got to do our job.”

His experience on both sides of the rivalry, Lenzmeier said, gives him a unique perspective on Saturday’s game and on the rivalry itself.

“I know how they feel down there and how important it is to them to win,” he said, “and obviously how important it is for us to win on this side.

“It’s great; it’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s a rivalry game.”

— Rick Wright

Former NMSU star basketball player, worked as an assistant at UNM.

Though he’s not even from the Land of Enchantment, Mason has seen the state’s basketball landscape from about as many different angles as anyone.

That includes viewing the heated Lobo/Aggie basketball rivalry from both benches.

“The players already know how big it is before they play the game,” said Mason, who returned five weeks ago to Las Cruces. “They talk. Down here, they can’t wait until they play the Lobos. Up there, they can’t wait until they play the Aggies. Any player who didn’t already know, they find out pretty quick.”

The Chicago-native played guard for Lou Henson at NMSU from 1999-2003, his final season (2002-03) being the last time NMSU swept UNM in basketball thanks in large part to his steal of Ruben Douglas and assist to Jason Fontenet with 16.7 seconds remaining for a 59-58 win in Las Cruces on Nov. 30, 2002.

Since then, he’s had plenty of connections to the Lobos. He worked on the staffs of Steve Alford (2012-13) and

Craig Neal (2013-14), coached at New Mexico Highlands with former UNM assistant Craig Snow, coached the AAU team sponsored by former Lobo Danny Granger, played on the New Mexico Thunderbirds for former Lobo Michael Cooper, helped several former Lobos coordinate basketball camps and this summer was the driving force along with Cameron Bairstow in organizing the first of its kind Lobo alumni all-star game in June that drew nearly 10,000 fans.

Through it all, he said he’s learned the passion for the rivalry is alive and well all over the state.

“It’s huge for everyone,” said Mason. “I think it was ranked high in the nation on some list of rivalries back when I was playing. We looked at it as players almost with a dislike — we wanted to go out there and dislike the other team, even if it’s not like that after the games. Then, going to the other side, you realize they want it the same way. The feelings aren’t just one sided.”

— Geoff Grammer

Started at UNM in marketing, moved to assistant director of marketing and promotions and left as director of sales. Was in UNM’s administration from December 1992-April 1997. Is a former NMSU baseball player (1987-89).

“When I played baseball for the Aggies, playing the Lobos was by far and away the most important game for us on our schedule. And we played teams like Arizona and Texas Tech, but this was the big one. I’ve talked to some of my old teammates about why it was that way, and we really couldn’t remember if there was bad blood at the time or what. We were an independent, so it was sort of a mini-World Series for us.”

As far as football, this will be the first time the Aggies’ first-year AD has a stake in the game from the NMSU side.

However, Moccia said he’s “always rooted for the Aggies! The 4-plus years I worked (at UNM), I just kept it under my hat.”

And he said that game is every bit as big — if not more so — than his old diamond days.

“We’re unique in the fact that UTEP is a tremendous rival for us. But when you look at resident numbers, and attendance numbers, people are focused on New Mexico. It’s in the state, and it really is the game of the year as far as I’m concerned — and the coaches are concerned.

“If you ask the U of A (Arizona), it’s always Arizona State. That’s how it should be.”

Of course, for Arizona and Arizona State, many times the game can mean much more than state bragging rights. Does Moccia think the Lobos-Aggies contest can ever have some meaning nationally?

“Obviously, our program aspires to have as much national implication as possible,” he said. “For now, it’s still stage bragging rights. And that a big deal.

“I would like to have more of a rivalry series, where there is a point system attached to all the games we play against each other. We should get a sponsor involved and make it a big deal.”

When informed there is such a contest, sort of, that hasn’t had much success — the Rio Grande Rivalry — Moccia said kind of remembered hearing something about it, but “It needs to turn into a big deal with a true champion and a lot of meaning. Something that might not be decided until, maybe, a softball game in May, or something like that. But most importantly there needs to be good corporate sponsorship and a trophy, a cup that’s awarded to the winner. It needs to be more formalized. That would energize the student-athletes and the communities.”

UNM sports information director Frank Mercogliano said, “We’ve had the trophy, but I was told NMSU doesn’t recognize the competition anymore. So I haven’t made a big deal of it. It was an all-sports thing.”

Moccia said he would speak to New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs about trying to rekindle the rivalry.

— Mark Smith

Grew up a Lobos fan but picked up a New Mexico State rooting interest when she served as a women’s basketball assistant coach in Las Cruces from 1993-99. Joined Don Flanagan’s UNM staff in 2000.

“I found out all the Lobo and Aggie jokes were the same,” Sanchez said. “You just switched the name of the school or the mascot in the punch line.”

There actually was no Lobos-Aggies rivalry in women’s sports during Sanchez’s NMSU tenure.

“No, it was a Lobo-Roadrunner rivalry,” Sanchez said, “and it was pretty healthy. State had the best of it for a long time until Coach Flanagan got hired, then it started going the other direction.”

NMSU’s women’s teams were nicknamed the Roadrunners until 2000, when the school’s female athletes voted to adopt Aggies. Before the change, NMSU’s Roadrunners won 16 straight women’s basketball games over the Lobos from 1985-95. UNM returned the favor by winning the next 22 meetings.

Having been on both sidelines, Sanchez does not recall feeling much Aggie venom toward UNM — at least not compared with what NMSU players and fans held for another nearby school.

“UTEP was really the hated rival you just did not want to lose to,” she said. “Everyone wanted to beat the Lobos, but it wasn’t as heated. It’s a little different feeling at UNM because we don’t have that rival school 30 minutes away.”

Where head-to-head meetings are concerned, Sanchez has retained employer loyalty. She rooted for the Aggies/Roadrunners in every sport when she worked at NMSU and now naturally favors the Lobos.

But Sanchez says she still roots for New Mexico State teams to beat everyone else.

“I know a lot of people there and it’s a New Mexico school,” Sanchez said. “I always like to see their teams successful.”

Sanchez is looking forward to the coming football matchup and expects a high-scoring affair. She also anticipates a strong coming chapter in the Lobo-Aggie women’s basketball rivalry.

“Both programs are on the way up,” she said. “We should have some pretty good battles over the next few years.”

— Ken Sickenger

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