For a few weeks this month, New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia scribbled his school’s growing number of ticket sales to the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl on a sheet of paper: first 619 and later 2,221 and then 4,296 and 5,945 and 6,972.
He took a photo of the list, handwritten on stationery from the Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas, and posted it to his Twitter account.
This was during an intoxicating period in which New Mexico State’s men’s basketball team traveled to Chicago and stunned Illinois, and then flew to Hawaii to shock No. 6 Miami. It was silhouetted against the Aggies’ invitation to Friday’s Arizona Bowl, the school’s first bowl appearance in 57 years.
Finally, after a month of enchantment, Moccia wrote that he was going to “have a bourbon.”
New Mexico State has been the toast of college athletics since its almost fictional rally in the last minute of the last game of the regular season to beat South Alabama and qualify for a bowl game, its first since 1960.
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It’s not the Chicago Cubs, but there have been decades of sports misery at New Mexico State and, predictably, there is a curse involved.
In 1967, after the Aggies sailed through a 7-2-1 season, finishing with a 90-0 victory over NAU and a 54-7 demolition of hated rival New Mexico, the NMSU administration forced future Hall of Fame coach Warren Woodson, who would turn 65 three months later, to retire.
The Las Cruces Sun was so critical of Woodson’s forced exit that it referred to it “as with the finality of a funeral.”
The curse began.
Since then, 10 NMSU coaches have gone 166-397-3. Because of their woefully bad football, the Aggies have been forced to relocate from so many conferences — the MVC, the CAA, the Big West, the WAC — that few raised an eyebrow when the Aggies were summarily dismissed from the Sun Belt Conference, beginning in 2018.
“It’s the Woodson curse,” says Mike Mistler, who is not only part of perhaps the greatest football family in Tucson history but also a former Aggie offensive lineman who is the school’s No. 1 supporter, or certainly no worse than No. 1-A.
“In that last drive to beat South Alabama, the Woodson curse was finally eliminated. It took 50 years.”
Mike Mistler, an information technology executive who lives in Overland Park, Kansas, is getting the old gang together for Friday’s Arizona Bowl. Let’s see: is that 15 people? Is it 20? More?
“I can’t even give you a count,” he says. “I’ve got groups of tickets at two places in the stadium. My son and his girlfriend are flying in from Spokane.
“My brother, John, is driving down from Scottsdale. My brother, Mark, will be there, because he’s the president of Compass Bank and helps to support the Arizona Bowl. My nephews will be here. My dad, who is 85, is going to the game.
“I think there’ll be close to 300 former players here. It’s just been so long in coming. If you played at New Mexico State and you can still walk and breathe, you’re going to be in Tucson this week.”
The feeling is mutual. Of the 1,927 NMSU football lettermen listed in the Aggies media guide, only three are mentioned with their endearing nicknames. Michael “Bo” Mistler played for the Aggies from 1980-82 after a knockout career at Sahuaro High School where he and his brothers became something of a local legend.
His brother, John, became an All-WAC receiver under Frank Kush at Arizona State and played in the NFL. Brother Mark accepted a scholarship to play for Lou Holtz at Arkansas. Mike, who initially began his post-Sahuaro days at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, gained 20 pounds and transferred to New Mexico State.
It was the move of a lifetime. Mistler earned two degrees and for many years, multiple times each season, has made the 910-mile journey from Kansas City to Las Cruces to stand on the sidelines with his beloved Aggies and their coaches.
“I’ve seen it all,” says Mistler. “We’ve tried everything: big-name coaches, small-college coaches who were successful, every combination you could imagine.
“We hired guys from UCLA and Ohio State. But it works now because they made a five-year commitment to Doug Martin and he made a commitment to see it through. You’ve got to be a grinder to coach at New Mexico State, and now we’ve got a grinder.”
Martin, who was fired after seven seasons Kent State, is a realistic guy. He spent the 2011 season on the NMSU staff and became educated in what it would take for a budget-starved Aggie coach to make football work.
He didn’t ask for an indoor facility. Instead, he said he could make it work with just eight assistant coaches, not the nine full-time coaches allowed by the NCAA. NMSU’s most renowned assistant coach, ex-Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani, is working for $150,000 a year. At Arizona, the offensive line coach was paid $320,000 this season.
Passion for New Mexico State football is such that the school lit its iconic Skeen Tower with crimson lights, vowing to keep it illuminated until the Aggies beat Utah State on Friday.
Even better, the Aggies are bringing two of the most engaging mascots in college sports to Arizona Stadium: Keystone, a quarter horse who will take a lap around the field, a la Colorado’s Ralphie the Buffalo, before each half, and Striking the Wonder Dog, a border collie who dashes onto the field after each NMSU kickoff to retrieve the kicking tee.
Show time, baby.
“If you see goalposts go down,” says Mistler, “you’ll see me at the top of them, swinging around.”