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When Mario Moccia was named athletics director at New Mexico State University in 2014, he inherited a men’s basketball program that, thanks in part to the legacy of Lou Henson, was a consistent conference champion and qualifier for the NCAA Tournament.
That was the good news.
He also inherited a debt of several million dollars owed to the main campus; a football program that hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1960, and, even worse, was without a conference; and facilities that were not up to the same standards as their opponents’.
The Aggies still need to find a conference, but the football team finally won a bowl game by beating Utah State in the 2017 Arizona Bowl. The basketball team has qualified for the NCAA Tournament seven times in the last eight years.
And, through increased sponsorships and fundraising -- along with some tough decisions, like ending the equestrian program -- Moccia was able to chip away at the debt. Each year, the athletics department made payments to the main campus, while still working to upgrade facilities and salaries to keep the teams competitive.
Then, in this year’s legislative session, the burden was lifted entirely when a provision added to the state budget by Sen. John Arthur Smith covered the debts owed by the athletics departments at both NMSU and the University of New Mexico. The millstone that had been hanging from Moccia’s neck from the day he was hired was finally gone.
Lawmakers went into that session believing they had an $800 million surplus. That was before Covid-19.
Now the millstone is back, much bigger than before. First, the NCAA basketball tournament was cancelled. Then, all of the money games, where the football team earns millions by taking a beating from much larger and better teams, were also cancelled. UCLA was going to pay NMSU $1.2 million, and Florida $1.5 million.
Which may explain why NMSU and UNM officials recently floated the idea of switching their game to Aug. 29, the first week of the schedule, despite a request by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to cancel all intercollegiate sports.
They are keeping all their options open, Moccia said, harkening back to a day when there were options. All one needs to do is look at the sputtering start of Major League baseball to see that there are no options for collegiate football.
Within days after resuming play, the Miami Marlins had to shut down when 18 players tested positive. Days later, the St. Louis Cardinals had to shut down when at least six players tested positive.
Those are professional teams with resources to hire the best health professionals and conduct routine testing; and playing a sport where, other than the catcher, athletes are seldom in close proximity to each other.
The only sports that have been successful have been those where they have been able to isolate the players, coaches and everyone else involved in one location. There’s just no way to do that with football.
I don’t know what the loss of this season will mean for the future of NMSU football. Continuing at the top level without a conference affiliation was going to be difficult even without the virus. Beyond the rivalry games of UNM and UTEP, there wasn’t much to get excited about. And surviving on money games is a hard way to go.
I don’t know how the Legislature will resolve what is now expected to be a $2 billion deficit, and what impact that will have on NMSU.
But what I do know is they won’t be playing football this year.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.