A brief story: In 1893, Sam Steel, the only senior and the lone member of the first graduating class of what is now New Mexico State University, was shot and killed before he could even receive his diploma.
So when you learn that things got off to such an inauspicious start out in Las Cruces, a 57-year streak of football futility doesn’t seem that bad.
Lo and behold, in one of the great stories of this college football season, the Aggies make their bowl rebirth, at 5:30 p.m. on Friday in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
It was 1960 the last time New Mexico State went bowling. Dwight D. Eisenhower was still in the White House, Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was No. 1 on the Billboard music charts. And the top three television shows were all Westerns: “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train” and “Have Gun — Will Travel.”
Which brings us back to Las Cruces, a small city in western New Mexico, just down Interstate 10, a town that is having a rollicking good time.
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Doug Martin can’t go shopping these days.
Dinners out, for now, are off the table. If he wants a measure of anonymity, that is.
The fourth-year New Mexico State head coach, who arrived in Las Cruces with a bold vision predicated on heavily recruiting Arizona and Texas, can barely walk around town anymore without drawing applause from the crowd. His back has been patted so much it’s going to callous over.
This is what happens when you take a team bowling for the first time since many of its fans were in diapers.
“The people here have been very appreciative of the progress we’ve made, and this year, my wife and I walked into a couple restaurants and people have started to applaud,” he said. “A lot of people in this town have been on this journey with us. This has been the most rewarding time of my career. I had a great time at (Eastern Carolina, where Martin served as an assistant 10 years), and I worked for a great head coach there. But we’ve done here something that nobody else has been able to do. Nothing bad about people chasing national championships, but a lot of people have won at the big schools, at the ’Bamas and Ohio States. There haven’t been many to win at NMSU. That’s the big thing I wanted.
“I hoped to leave a mark.”
And he has, helping New Mexico State rebound from one of the worst football situations in the country.
The team has had talented coaches.
Martin replaced DeWayne Walker, the former UCLA defensive coordinator, and he inherited the program from former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme — but Walker and Mumme went a combined 21-78 in eight years.
Under Martin, who took over in 2013, the Aggies weren’t much better. Martin went 10-38 in his first four seasons.
This year’s Aggies were experienced, focused and — maybe not coincidentally — all Martin’s. This year’s seniors were among the first players he recruited to Las Cruces.
“I finally went out for spring practice and there was a different mentality about us,” Martin said.
“There was a chip on our shoulder, a toughness. A great leadership that hadn’t been there before. Because we finally cycled through everyone on the team, everyone on the same page, same mentality.”
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In the dog-eat-dog world of college football, when the biggest, baddest bullies on the block — the Alabamas and Ohio States — are competing over giant T-bone steaks, the New Mexico States make do with less.
Las Cruces is about as far away from big-time college football as you can get. Other small towns have succeeded in the sport, but there’s usually a football lineage there.
Some of the current crop of Aggies’ grandparents weren’t born the last time the team played in late December.
When Martin took over, he says, the program was in disarray. He likens it to Kansas State in tiny Manhattan, Kansas, which was football purgatory until Bill Snyder came to town.
“When we started we had 61 on scholarship, and you’re supposed to have 85,” Martin said. “The program had never made the APR score in the history of the school. The facilities, absolutely horrible. The whole thing was a train wreck.”
Martin approached his interviews with a plan, a plan to recruit differently, veering away from the California-and-junior-college-based strategies of the past, and with a plan to address scholarship numbers.
He admits now that “everything we talked about was not a quick fix.” He credits school administrators who, he says, were willing to buy in.
“The arms race wasn’t going to fix it,” he said.
Even now, the Aggies make do with eight assistant coaches when most schools have nine.
But there have been results.
Scholarship numbers are up. The team has hit its APR target four times in a row. The program has sunk $1 million into the weight room and another $500,000 into the field.
Martin has revamped the strength and conditioning program, turning to director of sports performance Don Decker, whose bona fides included stints at Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Martin singles out Decker for his efforts, as this crop of Aggies is the strongest they’ve had in years.
“When you’re looking at Arkansas and Ole Miss, those aren’t the premier SEC programs either and they’re not gonna get the five-stars,” Martin said.
“(Decker) was used to getting players and having to develop them at the SEC level. Larry Rose (the team’s prized running back), when we signed him, he was 160 pounds. He’s 200 now. That’s the type of thing with these guys. That’s the foundation for the whole program. Stronger, bigger, faster.”
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It’s not just that New Mexico State is doing better at making kids better once they get on campus. The Aggies are also going out and finding the right kids.
Rose, the senior running back with more than 4,000 career rushing yards, had precisely one Division I scholarship offer coming off a high school senior season that included nearly 3,000 rushing yards, 49 touchdowns and a Texas Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year honor.
Senior linebacker Dalton Herrington, who has over 350 career tackles, including 125 this season, was similarly overlooked. Like Rose, he, too, is from Texas.
New Mexico State has 37 players on its 2017 roster from the Lone Star State, its neighbors to the east. It has another eight from Arizona, its neighbors to the west, and 12 from New Mexico itself.
Martin has prided himself on developing this home- and close-to-home-grown talent, and doing it the right way.
“Everybody was looking for the quick fix to get one winning season, to get another job and get out of here,” Martin said.
“We wanted to build a program, not a team. That was the pitch. That’s what they bought into. To do that, we had to get back to high school recruiting. Looking at Texas, the mecca of high school football, and Las Cruces is geographically a lot like Texas, and like Arizona, the same thing. I thought Arizona was totally underutilized. It’s become a tremendous recruiting ground.”
Aggies coaches worked Phoenix and Tucson, landing — among others — a commitment from Mountain View High School defensive lineman Kai Golden.
“Arizona is right next door, and Arizona State up north, and there is enough talent in that state, they have enough they can’t take them all,” added secondary coach Brian Bell.
“We have to go get a couple of them. (Wide receiver coach Cory Martin, head coach Doug’s son) gets after that state. Those guys have talent, way more than people know about.”
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For Martin and Co., who’ve pounded the recruiting trail that is I-10, the pitch was simple.
“You are going to be the ones who change the culture here,” he said. “You’ll be remembered forever.
“And they will be. They’ll be remembered forever around New Mexico State.”
And he’s right.
Defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who came to New Mexico State in 2016 following a stint as Boston College’s defensive coordinator and head coach, can sense the enthusiasm around town.
“There are no standing ovations for me, but there are more people who know about the level of success that’s been reached here,” he said.
“There’s an enthusiasm. The place is put on the map a little bit. In the two years I’ve been here, I can notice some subtle differences. More people know what’s happening, notice the success, congratulate you, wish you the best of luck. A pat on the back, good job kind of deal. It’s percolating there. I wouldn’t say they’ve gone rabid. It’s a little bit like a sleeping giant — it’s been dormant.”
Las Cruces is starting to wake up.
New Mexico State drew almost 30,000 to the last home game, a win over South Alabama that made the Aggies bowl-eligible. Martin is hearing more and more from boosters and former players who played decades ago.
“A lot of those guys have been so appreciative,” Martin said. “Like, ‘We’ve never thought we’d see this happen.’
“Charley Johnson, who played in the NFL, is in the Broncos Ring of Honor, he’s been like another father to me. Sits in our QB meetings here. I just love him. To see the tears in those guys’ eyes, to know it’s genuine, those are things we get to keep for the rest of our lives. It’s just been overwhelming. Not to mention the fundraising, and not just for the football team but for the university in general.”
Ah, back to the bucks, where it always seems to go when discussing college football.
But this is different.
Bucks in this case mean better laundry detergent, not a flashy, $40 million scoreboard.
This isn’t big-time college football.
But it is college football, the best part of it.
“There is a purity to it,” Martin said. “This is a family town, and it’s grown into it. This first recruiting class, they’re all seniors now, and 22 of them had to play as true freshmen. To see them be the class that did get it turned around.
“We didn’t have facilities, but these kids bought in on credit. That’s been the most rewarding piece of this.”