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What is the point of college football?
Is it to win the national championship?
Is it to win the Battle of I-10?
Is it to win the Rio Grande Rivalry?
Is it to have a nice way for fans to spend a Saturday afternoon or night with friends and family?
Is it for media to have a vehicle to sell advertising to Coors Light?
Is it so grown men can have something to yell and argue about on Mondays, and call into radio shows?
Like anything else, college football means different things to different people.
The same holds true in Las Cruces, where our New Mexico State University Aggies field one of the nation’s 119 Football Bowl Subdivision programs. No matter how you look at it, college football in Las Cruces does NOT mean the same as it does in, say, Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Norman, Oklahoma; or South Bend, Indiana.
Recently, I re-connected with friend and former colleague Steve Bennett, who played for the Aggies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. NMSU wasn’t winning then much more than they’re winning these days, but Bennett’s comments about his playing days seldom touch on the win-loss record. He did say playing against Terry Bradshaw, who quarterbacked Louisiana Tech back then, was a jaw-dropping experience.
“He’s not there, we win by two touchdowns,” Bennett said of the guy who would be drafted No. 1 in the next NFL draft. “With him behind center, they beat us by four touchdowns. He was that good.”
The over-arching comments Bennett has about his Aggie days, though, have nothing to do with the game itself. He talks about the opportunities. A scholarship. An education that led to a longtime career as a teacher and coach. Friendships and memories.
Former college football players talk about specific games, specific plays, but mostly they’ll talk about people: coaches, teammates and opponents. I’ve heard as many great stories about off-the-field adventures as exploits during games. They also talk about the life-changing opportunities they had from their education.
Aggie football has lost a lot more games than it’s won the past 60 years or so. They’ve also gone through a ton of coaches.
I’m a big fan of current Aggie head coach Doug Martin, in his eighth season. Like any football coach anywhere, Martin has his detractors.
But I’ve always been inspired by the way Martin’s players respond, and keep upbeat spirits and competitive energy despite a lot of frustrations.
The highest point of NMSU football since 1960 came under Martin’s watch.
That would be the Arizona Bowl, in December 2017, when an Aggie Memorial Stadium-full of NMSU fans swarmed on Tucson to watch the Aggies defeat Utah State in a thrilling overtime game, NMSU’s first bowl victory in 57 years.
But Martin might not get another shot at that kind of glory.
His contract is set to expire at the end of this season. Had NMSU won six games, he would have earned an automatic one-year extension. That didn’t happen, but I’m among those who believe he deserved a year extension in the wake of the lost season. That didn’t happen either.
Based on the team’s record, the small market of Las Cruces, relatively primitive facilities and limited booster support, we’re lucky to still be in the FBS. Add on top of that, the frustration of being a team without a conference, and with the setback from our state’s uniquely rigid Covid restrictions, and there may not be a less attractive college head coaching position in America.
I certainly couldn’t blame Martin if he decided to move on after this season. But if he wants to stay, I believe NMSU’s administration should do everything it can to keep him.
With NMSU’s pending arrival in Conference USA, coming in 2023, the team will once again have a sports home. Wandering around the desert of college football independents (unless, of course, you’re Notre Dame) creates an aura of uncertainty of instability that’s not too attractive to 18-year-old athletes being wooed by other schools.
To rebound from the lost Covid year, and with a new conference waiting in the wings, Aggie football is poised for hitting the reset button. Here’s a chance for Martin to start fresh, with the important advantages of already knowing our market, and having already tasted success, in spite of the inherent difficulties of the NMSU football program.
We could start the coaching revolving door once again. There are plenty of young, starry-eyed aspiring football coaches in America who think they could come to Las Cruces and make NMSU a top 50 program. But they would have to start from scratch, learning NMSU’s hurdles and obstacles.
But if we want stability for the program, I believe Doug Martin is your man.
The Aggies host the University of Massachusetts in their final game of the season at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27. Both UMass and NMSU are sitting with 1-10 records. I’m anticipating a competitive game. I’m anticipating a typically nice southern New Mexico autumn afternoon. I’m anticipating kicking back in the stands with some friends, still in a bit of a turkey coma from Thanksgiving leftovers. In other words, I’m anticipating a wonderfully pleasant day.
However, there will be an unpleasant thought lurking in the background: It could be Doug Martin’s last game as the Aggie football coach.
I sure hope not.