This is tugh to check, but players at New Mexico State swear that the crowd at last year's homecoming game more than doubled after halftime. "It was 21-21 at the half," says Aggie tight end Todd Cutler, "and I guess people heard it on the radio and ran over to see if we could hold on. We came out for the second half, and the crowd had jumped from about 7,000 to about 17,000. I couldn't believe it."
Hey, Todd, if the good people of Las Cruces, N.Mex., had thought your Aggies could stay with heavily favored Fresno State for two quarters, they almost certainly would have been there for the kickoff. But over the years New Mexico State fans have learned to follow football the way physicists once watched the first A-bomb test at nearby Alamogordo—from a safe distance.
I mean, who wants to risk contamination? The two games the Aggies won last year—they lost to Fresno 42-28—were the most victories in a season since 1987. They have had only one winning season since 1967. They lost 27 straight from October '88 to November '90. The Aggies went to Kansas State two years ago when the hapless Wildcats were still reeling from the Futility U label put on them by this magazine and got beat 52-7. Long Beach State lost to the Aggies last year 28-24, then dropped football. If K-State was Futility U, New Mexico State is Ground Zero.
You have to feel sorry for coach Jim Hess, who has seen more wretched football in his two years at Las Cruces than he did in 15 years as a successful NAIA and Division I-AA coach. When he arrived, Hess inherited a 17-game losing streak. "This was the worst football program in America," he says. "Still may be." No argument here.
August 30, 1992
If Hess had known how bad, he might not have taken the job. He remembers the first play of his first spring practice, an end-over-end pass that landed three rows deep in the stands. An assistant coach, also witnessing his first Aggie practice, turned to him and said, "Lord have mercy on our souls." Then there was the time in 1990 that wide receiver Larry Harriston caught a pass against Tulsa and was racing down the sideline for the end zone, only to fall out of bounds without being touched. Stunned, Hess said, "Larry, I've been coaching football 30 years, and I have never seen anything like that."
Harriston said, "Coach, you haven't been an Aggie long enough."
In order to play football at New Mexico State you need a thick skin more than a thick neck. When Hess & Co. went up to Albuquerque last year to play New Mexico, Lobo fans wore T-shirts with the message WE MAY NOT WIN VERY MANY GAMES, BUT WE ALWAYS BEAT NEW MEXICO STATE! The year before, football pundits mocked the meeting of New Mexico State and likewise winless Cal State-Fullerton as the Game of the Weak and the Game of the Decayed.
For Hess, who coached Angelo State to the NAIA title in 1978 and later assembled an entire backfield of NFL draft choices at Stephen F. Austin, the challenge is daunting. "In college football you have 35 or 40 schools that are the haves, and there's a middle group that can go cither way," he says. "But that group in the third tier—nobody's interested in seeing them come up. They're the ones you beat 50-0 and run up your statistics on."
For a price, of course. This season New Mexico State is guaranteed $100,000 for a game at Kansas State and $200,000 for an appearance at Arizona—money that Hess needs to sustain his program. But 50-0 losses hamper recruiting and leave players physically and psychologically bruised. Three years ago Hess's predecessor, Mike Knoll, took the team to Norman, Okla. What ensued was a 73-3 rout before 73,000 roaring Sooner fans. "They threw us to the wolves," says defensive tackle Sam Austrino, who made his first college appearance in the blowout. "After the first quarter our whole defensive line was freshmen, because the coaches didn't want our regular people to get hurt."
The players make light of their predicament, but some can't hide their disillusionment. Cutler cried when the Aggies outplayed UTEP in last season's opener, only to lose 22-21. At least no one blames the current players for the program's decline, which began before they were born. You need a little gray in your hair to remember the Aggies of 30-plus years ago, led by Hall of Fame coach Warren Woodson, now 89 and retired in Texas. Led by running backs Bob Gaiters, Pervis Atkins and James (Preacher) Pilot, Woodson's teams led the nation in rushing from 1959 to '62, won two Sun Bowls and ran up a 16-game winning streak. In 1960 the Aggies went 11-0. The last tangible evidence of this winning tradition is a game ball on display in the office of athletic director Al Gonzales. The inscription reads, NOV. 18, 1967—AGGIES 54, LOBOS 7.
Woodson was let go after that '67 season even though State had finished with a 7-2-1 record that included a 90-0 win over Northern Arizona and the drubbing of New Mexico. The official reason: He had reached retirement age. The real reason: politics. "He had tremendous offensive football knowledge," says Gonzales, a star lineman under Woodson. "But he was of the old school, like Frank Kush and Woody Hayes—not strong on public relations." Another Aggie once said of Woodson, "I don't know how a man can sound that mean without cussin'."
Woodson's successor, Jim Wood, went 21-30-1 over five seasons (2-9 in his final one), and by the early '70s the spunk had left the program. The next four coaches were 52-133-2. Says Hess, "You almost had to plan to get it this bad."
There was no plan, but there are several theories about what did go wrong with Aggie football. Economics certainly played a role. With its sparse population (1.5 million in 1990) and depressed prices for many of its natural resources, New Mexico has a limited tax base. Today, the per capita income of Las Cruces is $9,000 a year, while El Paso, 45 minutes away by car, ranks as the country's second-poorest city. "We don't have a graduate who's going to give us a million dollars because he loves football," says Ed Groth, State's chief publicist.
Beginning in the early '70s, annual increases in the football budget failed to keep pace with cither inflation or the cost of doing business. On top of that, the school kept adding nonrevenue sports in response to Title IX (which mandated increased allocations for women's sports) and because of its own decision to leave the Missouri Valley Conference to join the Pacific Coast Athletic Association.
By the 1989 season football recruiting expenditures had shrunk to $19,500 a year (most Division I-A schools spend 10 times that amount), and the staff was asking prospects from Arizona to drive themselves to Las Cruces for a look. The most telling symptom of the program's decline was the turnover in assistant coaches, who saw New Mexico State only as a stepping-stone to better—and better-paying—programs. Says Gonzales, "It wasn't unusual in the career of a head coach to see 25 assistants come through."
The churning of players was almost as dramatic. Freshmen came in, saw little of worth in the program and quit. The term depth chart became an inside joke. "We had a lot of good players," recalls one Aggie, "but if somebody got hurt, we had a freshman in there who didn't know what he was doing." When Hess arrived, the Aggies were down to 42 scholarship players; the NCAA allows 92 (85 beginning in '94).
Hindsight makes it clear that the Aggies were like Wile E. Coyote, walking off a cliff with an anvil. Even so, coach after coach went to Las Cruces promising bowl games and conference titles: Wood was followed by Jim Bradley (23-31-1), Gil Krueger (17-37-1), Fred Zechman (8-25) and Knoll (4-40). All chased the roadrunner; all got "Beep-beep!" and tire tracks on their backs. Only Bradley is now a head coach, at Roswell (N.Mex.) High.
The option of dropping down to Division I-AA was discussed, says Gonzales, "but not seriously. It wouldn't have helped us very much, because we would have lost income. No more guarantees."
Wisely, Hess has tried to diminish expectations. A cowboy buff with a taste for Western art and Larry McMurtry novels, he walks the corridors of the athletic department, singing in a deep, warbly voice. So far, though, no one has caught him babbling about bowl games. "I haven't promised anything except to work at it," he says. "Because it's very, very hard."
Gonzales is trying to help by limiting budget increases for sports like volleyball and women's Softball. "And I'm taking heat for it," he concedes. The recruiting budget is up to $80,000, which is sufficient to at least allow Hess to bird-dog players from Southwest Conference recruiting lists. Aggie boosters have raised more than $400,000 this year for scholarships; coaching salaries have been raised enough to end the exodus of assistants; and Coca-Cola has built the Aggies a new weight room, the third largest in the country.
The effort could begin to pay off. This fall, Hess will field as many as 75 scholarship players, and his latest recruiting class includes more freshmen than in recent years—symbolically important after two years of filling holes with junior college transfers. Vestiges of the "Ever play football?" era remain—the roster includes long-snapper Shane Hackney, who is a stockbroker and a graduate business student, and an architect, fifth-year senior halfback Ray Washington. But State has depth at quarterback and running back, and for the first time speed on both sides of the line in tailbacks Charles Varrie and Lawrence Truehill and free safety Quinton Tezeno. "There is hope now," says Hackney. "Everybody thinks we can win games."
Winning, of course, could bring a whole new set of problems. When New Mexico State broke its 20-game road losing streak at Fullerton last year, the players tried to celebrate by singing the school fight song. Unfortunately, no one remembered the words. "We were able to get out 'Aggies, oh Aggies,' " says former defensive end Shawn Moore. The next week an assistant coach got so excited at the end of the Aggies' 28-24 victory over Long Beach State that he threw up.
Cutler explains. "We haven't won enough to know what to do."
High fives and a Gatorade shower for the coach, Todd. A few more wins and you'll get the hang of it.