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Plenty of good seats were still available at kickoff Saturday for the Aggies’ final game of the football season, which was unfortunate but not surprising.
Unfortunate, because New Mexico State University beat the University of Massachusetts in an exciting game between two evenly matched teams played on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. Not surprising, because almost none of the previous games this season have met that criteria, except for the beautiful afternoon part.
NMSU started the season with more than 19,000 fans for the first home game against UTEP, which always draws scores of Miners’ fans driving from El Paso. But attendance has fallen sharply since then, with just 7,802 fans for the Utah State game rattling around Aggie Memorial Stadium, which can hold up to 30,343.
That’s a far cry from what Aggies fans were promised back in 2004, when former President Mike Martin convinced regents to make the massive financial investment needed to join the more prestigious Western Athletic Conference.
Martin had aspirations that were greater than his capacity to fulfill them. And his plan backfired spectacularly when the WAC discontinued football. The Aggies were left on their own, trying to survive as an independent.
That led to schedules like this year’s, with back-to-back drubbings at Alabama and Kentucky in so-called “money games” in which inferior teams get paid millions of dollars to play in games in which they are badly overmatched at every position and have no hope of winning.
Starting in the 2023-24 academic year, the Aggies will finally have the security of a conference home. Playing in Conference USA will give the team more reliable scheduling and an opportunity to compete against teams on their same level.
And, they will go into the new conference with a new coach. Jerry Kill brings a proven track record as a former head coach at Saginaw Valley State, Southern Illinois and Minnesota, which plays in the Big Ten, one of the so-called Power 5 conferences in college football.
A move to a new conference with a new veteran head coach is certainly reason for optimism. But Kill will face the same challenges that bedeviled his predecessors.
Doug Martin compiled a 25-74 record during a nine-year tenure in which his crowning achievement was to be the first NMSU coach in 57 years to win a bowl game. But that’s because previous coaches couldn’t have made it to a bowl game with a 6-6 regular-season record.
Before Martin was coach, DeWayne Walker compiled a 10-40 record. Hal Mumme was 11-38. Tony Samuel ended with a 34-57 record. Jim Hess was 22-55. Mike Knoll was 4-40. And on it goes. The last coach with a winning record was Warren Woodson, who stepped down in 1967.
At some point, you’ve got to conclude that the coach isn’t the problem.
NMSU football has been plagued by a consistent lack of financial support at the level needed to compete in the FBS, what was formerly Division IA. And, all those losing seasons stacked on top of each other have led to waning interest and excitement for the program, both on campus and in the community.
College football at every level below the FBS is a sport. College football at the FBS level is a business. And, that business model has just been upended, with changes to how student athletes can be compensated.
NMSU officials believe there is great value that comes with the national recognition of playing in the FBS. But to make that business decision pay off, they have to make the necessary investments.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org