Sunday, April 10, 2005
Lobo Sports Have Grown in Wins, Popularity
By Rick Wright
Journal Staff Writer
One can only wonder what coach S.F. Jenkins said to his University Boys that day. Or about them.
On Oct. 7, 1892 long before ESPN was a glint in anyone's eye the University of New Mexico lost its first-ever football game and, it seems likely, UNM's first-ever athletic event.
The winner? Albuquerque High School, by a score of 5-0.
Yet, from those exceedingly humble beginnings grew an athletic program that, while not rivaling the tradition of a Michigan or a Texas, has a chile-flavored panache all its own.
Today's Lobos landscape features a solid football team Albuquerque High wouldn't have a prayer these days a winning and wildly popular women's basketball team, and a men's basketball program that's the highest-rated soap opera in town.
Others among the university's docket of 21 varsity sports occasionally bob to the top. In March 2004, the UNM skiers won the school's first-ever NCAA team title.
From the valley of that first football game to the summit of that first NCAA title, a handful of events and individuals stand out.
Coach Roy Johnson arrived at UNM in 1920, bringing strength and stability to the athletic program. That same year, a UNM student journalist named George S. Bryan suggested "Lobo" the Spanish word for wolf as a candidate for UNM's mascot.
"The Lobo is respected for his cunning, feared for his prowess, and is the leader of the pack," read an editorial in the Oct. 1, 1920, issue of the UNM student newspaper, as related in the 2004 Lobos football media guide. "... All together now; 15 rahs for the LOBOS."
When rahs are handed out for UNM's best-ever football teams, Johnson's 1927 Lobos rarely are mentioned. Yet, they won eight games, lost none and tied one, allowing only 26 points all year.
Johnson coached men's basketball, too. In his final six years at the helm, UNM went 79-27.
Another candidate for best-ever football team was the 1934 Border Conference champions led by an Albuquerque kid named Ralph Bowyer, a three-sport star who might be the finest home-grown athlete who ever wore a Lobos uniform, and run-with-abandon halfback Guyton "Sheep" Hays.
"Sheep would run over his own teammates if they were in the way," Bowyer once said.
Through the years, 1945 stands out as one of the best. In the spring of '45, coach Woody Clements' men's basketball team finished off a 14-2 season. That fall, Willis Barnes coached the football team to a 6-1-1 record.
The talents of halfback Don Perkins, later a star with the Dallas Cowboys, ushered in what could be considered the Golden Age of UNM football: a seven-season stretch (1958-64) that produced a record of 48-23-1 and three consecutive conference titles.
"It was a fun time," said Bill Weeks, an assistant coach for the first two of those seven seasons and head coach for the last five. "There was a lot of school spirit involved."
Is a second Golden Age upon us? Under coach Rocky Long, the Lobos have gone to bowl games the past three seasons though they have yet to win one.
Basketball, meanwhile, floundered in the 1950s with the exception of prolific-scoring Santa Fean Toby Roybal. Not until a short, crew-cut Iowan named Bob King arrived in 1962, bringing with him a 6-foot-81/2-inch Detroit native named Ira Harge, did hoops become the hottest game in town.
Only four years after King's arrival, the Lobos moved from 7,800-seat Johnson Gym to University Arena the Pit on UNM's South Campus.
After addition of a mezzanine level in 1975, the Pit's capacity now is 18,018. In 1983, UNM's homecourt hosted one of the most memorable NCAA title games of all time: North Carolina State's upset of Houston.
Through the coaching careers of Norm Ellenberger, Gary Colson, Dave Bliss, Fran Fraschilla and into that of Ritchie McKay, and through the playing careers of Michael Cooper, Luc Longley, Charles Smith, Kenny Thomas, Danny Granger et al, the state's passion for Lobos men's basketball has ebbed and flowed.
But never run dry.
Oh, there were other programs, too, and good ones.
Dick McGuire's men's golf team won nine straight conference titles in the 1950s and '60s. Coach Hugh Hackett's move from Highland High School to UNM in 1958 made Lobos track and field an instant success. In the '60s, U.S. Olympian Rusty Mitchell turned New Mexico into a national gymnastics power.
Women's sports, their path cleared by Title IX, made their official entry into UNM lore in the 1970s.
In 1979, Lobo Susan Vigil won an AIAW national title in the 800-meter run. Lobos golfer Caroline Keggi won an NCAA individual title in 1987.
In the 1990s and into the next millennium, women's basketball coach Don Flanagan built a regional powerhouse and a local phenomenon. For six years running, the Lobos have been a top-10 program nationally in attendance.
No history of UNM athletics would be complete without mention of the 1979-80 Lobogate scandal. Wire fraud involving phony transcripts within coach Norm Ellenberger's men's basketball program caused cracks in the foundation that took years to repair.
Dramatic victories? The Lobos have had their share.
On Dec. 7, 1963, in a game postponed two weeks by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Lobos squared off in Tucson against the Arizona Wildcats with the Western Athletic Conference football title at stake. UNM prevailed, 22-15.
On Jan. 2, 1988, the top-ranked Arizona men's basketball team came to the Pit. The Lobos sent them packing, 61-59.
Yet, it was a devastating defeat that really captures the essence of Lobos athletics.
On March 21, 1964, the Lobos were humiliated by Bradley, 86-54, in the finals of the National Invitation Tournament.
The following day, some 7,000 fans braved a dust storm to greet the team at the Albuquerque airport.
Coach S.F. Jenkins, no doubt, would have been amazed.