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UNM football: Stumping for big crowds elicits lukewarm responses

Last week, Albuquerque’s consumers responded to the University of New Mexico’s bowl-eligible football team with deafening silence.

In the days preceding the Lobos’ crucial home game against Colorado State, UNM athletic director Paul Krebs and coach Bob Davie stumped for a big fan turnout.

“Albuquerque, it’s time,” Krebs wrote in an open letter to the community. “Lobo football needs you, because you can make a difference.”

A crowd announced at 21,643 – 55 percent of capacity at University Stadium – turned out.

It wasn’t the first time Krebs had made a direct pitch to the fans. After his 2011 in-season firing of coach Mike Locksley, with New Mexico State up next for the Lobos under interim coach George Barlow, Krebs said, “Dammit, our fans need to turn out and support our team.”

A crowd announced at 30,091 showed up. But the Aggies beat the Lobos 42-28, and UNM averaged barely 20,000 home attendance that year as the team finished with a 1-11 record.

The program has improved greatly, if not dramatically, since then with Davie at the controls. Attendance has increased as well, but fitfully – averaging 22,300 in 2012, 23,500 in 2013, 21,950 last season. With tonight’s finale against Air Force remaining, this year’s average is 23,178.

At midweek, some 18,100 tickets had been sold for tonight’s game.

In Davie’s first few weeks as UNM’s head coach, he talked about the importance of fans supporting the program on the road to success instead of waiting for success to be achieved.

Rocky Long, who coached the Lobos from 1998-2008, often had said the same thing. But, despite having taken UNM to five bowl games, he never got the fan support he wanted.

“If you want to compete with the big boys, you better start acting like a big-time program,” Long said at a news conference held to announce his resignation. “And that’s not just the football team or the football coaches, that’s the damn fans.”

Davie generally has taken a conciliatory approach when asked about attendance. It’s his job to build a product fans want to see, he has said.

Before the Colorado State game, however, with the Lobos coming off upset victories over Utah State and Boise State, he made a direct pitch to the fans during a radio interview.

Like Krebs’ letter, Davie’s words had no apparent impact.

Davie has a financial interest in better attendance. As per his contract, an incentive worth $25,000 kicks in if UNM averages 19,000 fans – not including UNM students. Another $25,000 is triggered if attendance averages 21,000.

It’s believed attendance announced by UNM includes students. Thus, it’s not clear whether Davie has collected on those incentives. A phone message left for Krebs by the Journal on Friday was not returned.

Based on ticket sales for tonight’s game, there’s no immediate change in the wind. Even so, there’s some good news – relatively speaking – to be taken from the turnstiles.

With tonight’s game remaining, UNM is averaging about 1,250 more fans per game than last year.

Last season, UNM ranked eighth in the 12-team Mountain West Conference in attendance. This year, UNM is seventh.

Tiny steps? Yes. But, like six wins and a likely bowl bid, they’re at least steps in the right direction.