The college football bowl business is operated by an army of ESPN programmers and advertising big shots, rich guys at the Tournament of Roses house, overpaid conference commissioners and those who aren’t sure if Las Cruces is in Texas, New Mexico or part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Late Saturday night, ESPN “discovered” New Mexico State.
On a day that Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia and the Big Boys from the Big Leagues played for all the Big Money, ESPN chose to feature the Aggies as the “One Big Thing” from the day in sports.
People in Las Cruces, N.M., cried. People on the “SportsCenter” set got all weepy. Mike Mistler , a software executive from Kansas City — Sahuaro High School, Class of ’78 — stood on the sideline at Memorial Stadium and failed in his attempt to fight back tears.
“It was a magical moment,” he said. “How many obstacles can one school overcome?”
The Aggies drove 83 yards in the last five minutes to beat South Alabama 22-17. It seemed like each of the 26,268 at Memorial Stadium stormed the field at once, rushing past Mistler and NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl rep Brent DeRaad.
For the first time in 57 years, a school that has been kicked around and kicked out of the WAC, the Big West, the MVC, the PCAA and finally the Sun Belt Conference — a school whose football team has suffered through 47 losing seasons since 1960 – won the Big Game.
At exactly 2:53 p.m. Sunday, the Aggies accepted an invitation to play in the Arizona Bowl.
At that moment, Mistler unfurled a New Mexico State flag he had concealed under his arm. The din at Charro Steak in downtown Tucson was such that whatever the former New Mexico State nose guard said was not recorded for history.
It was probably something like “bring on the Aggies!”
For the last 10 days, Ali Farhang, chairman of the Arizona Bowl, had Aggies on the brain. Since the bowl’s inception in 2016, he has been drawn to the possibility of New Mexico State qualifying for a bowl.
“They could bring 10,000 people to Tucson,” he said. “It would be such a good story.”
Last week, after maneuvering around the ever-present programming presence of ESPN — Farhang is acutely aware that ESPN has five bowl slots for the Mountain West Conference and four for the Sun Belt — he became enamored of a possible Utah State vs. New Mexico State game.
“Aggies against Aggies,” he said. “The universe works in mysterious ways.”
Jon Volpe, the former Amphitheater High School and Stanford football star, president and CEO of Nova Home loans, bought it, too.
“Utah State and New Mexico State played in the 1960 Sun Bowl and there was some bad blood,” he said with a grin. “Now we can let all the Aggies settle their old business in Tucson.”
But just as Farhang and Volpe prepared to announce an Aggies vs. Aggies game, ESPN intruded. It went into a leverage mode with the Mountain West Conference — ESPN is to most small conferences as Nike is to the University of Oregon — and the Arizona Bowl had to run through an 11th hour of negotiations to acquire Aggies vs. Aggies.
Who knew ESPN even cared about a team named Aggies?
“It was stressful,” said Farhang. “We’ve known for a week this is the matchup we wanted and we pushed hard for it. I think, at the end, other people realized that this won’t be just another bowl game.”
In the over-saturation era of bowl games era, New Mexico State is unspoiled. It has heart and soul. The Aggies have been dismissed from the Sun Belt Conference and a year from now must play as an unaffiliated school, which means it has scheduling problems like no one in FBS football.
“We are playing Liberty twice next year — twice,” said Mistler. “We had to schedule Alcorn State, but we’ve also got Minnesota, Wyoming and BYU, so we’re not going to just go away.”
The Aggies of Las Cruces and the Aggies of Logan, Utah, have been rivals forever. Much like NMSU, Utah State was for years forced to play in the bush leagues, blocked by BYU and Utah from joining the WAC, jumping from the PCAA to the Sun Belt to the Big West.
Now the Aggies, both of ’em, have been found.
On New Year’s Eve, 1960, Utah State and New Mexico State played in one of the year’s marquee bowl games, the Sun Bowl. NMSU was 10-0 and ranked No. 17. USU was 9-1. NMSU had won the Border Conference; USU had won the Skyline Conference. A capacity crowd of 16,000 at El Paso’s old Kidd Stadium watched.
The Aggies, both of ’em, were powerhouses.
Utah State then went 32 years without a bowl game. New Mexico State hasn’t played in one since.
“It’s a long story, but a lot of people say there is a curse involved with New Mexico State football,” said Mistler. “But whatever it was, a curse or just 57 years of bad luck, ended Saturday night in Las Cruces.”