You want to stage a bowl game in your town? You pay $200,000 to rent Arizona Stadium. You enlist 300 volunteers. You work a three-year deal with CBS. You rent a 50-foot high American flag from a company in Florida, place it in the upper deck, and then fold it up and ship it back.
You pay $45,000 to a musical group to sing a few songs, another few grand for a guy to paint a tear-jerking picture of the Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, and then you hope the bowl-game gods give you two teams who treat the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl like it’s the Rose Bowl.
After all that, against every conceivable odd, you get a bowl game for the ages. New Mexico State 26, Utah State 20.
Early Friday evening, a shield of security people formed a ring around a speaker’s platform on the 20-yard line as Arizona Bowl founder Ali Farhang and Nova Home Loans CEO Jon Volpe tried to present the Arizona Bowl championship trophy to NMSU coach Doug Martin.
Martin must’ve embraced, what, 100 happy celebrants? He kept dabbing the tears from his eyes as thousands of New Mexico State fans poured over the security railing and mobbed the platform. The security people had no chance. Neither did those who had carefully planned a trophy presentation.
Finally, New Mexico State linebacker Leon McQuaker, squeezed next to Volpe and said “Let me hold it!” as tears rolled down his cheeks.
McQuaker held the championship trophy aloft. The cheers were such that they washed away NMSU’s 57 years in the football wilderness.
It was a celebration to match any UA Territorial Cup victory against Arizona State, and, if anyone kept statistics for happy tears shed, it might’ve been the most joyous moment at the old stadium since it was built in 1929.
“You’d have thought they won the national championship or the Super Bowl,” Arizona Bowl executive director Alan Young said. “It was pure emotion.”
New Mexico State will not likely be referred to as “they” much longer. The team unceremoniously invited to leave the Sun Belt Conference this year is most enchanting story of college football, 2017.
At the moment tailback Larry Rose III broke free for a winning 21-yard touchdown in overtime, NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia wasn’t quite sure how to react. He had been pacing, back and forth, for most of the second half.
Moccia turned and looked for someone to hug the way North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano did at the 1983 Final Four.
At precisely that moment, Farhang, of all people, emerged from a swarm of people rushing the field.
Moccia and Farhang embraced. You can have your Foster Farms Bowl and your Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Unless you’re in the College Football Playoff, the 2017 Arizona Bowl is as good as it gets.
“That’s why I do this,” said Farhang, a Tucson attorney. “To see the faces of those kids tonight. I’ll never forget the pure emotion.”
You don’t have to walk softly any more or speak in hushed tones to tell the New Mexico State football story.
Now the story changes.
Of the 39,132 people at Arizona Stadium on Friday, about 25,000 were either from Las Cruces, or those who had connections to Las Cruces. It was something like a modern day wagon train, the Great Aggie Emigration, across Interstate 10. The only thing missing were covered wagons.
Rose looked in the jammed West bleachers at Arizona Stadium and said “there’s no one in Las Cruces.”
It wasn’t always that way.
In an Oct. 28 loss to Arkansas State, when only 10,041 paid to see the Aggies at NMSU’s Memorial Stadium, it was the same old story that began 57 years ago, after the Aggies’ last bowl game.
Martin’s team was 3-5. They were DITW — dead in the water.
And then, when no one was paying attention, New Mexico State became BSIF — best story in football.
Five years of building from scratch has given Martin a perspective that few college football coaches can enjoyed. He inherited a football program that had just 61 of the possible 85 scholarship spots filled, an academically-struggling program with limited facilities and almost not a dime to spare.
“This is the most rewarding experience I’ve had in coaching because of where we came from,” Martin said at an impromptu trophy ceremony inside the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility. He talked about the first practice session at NMSU and only then realized the enormity of his assignment.
“I put my head on the desk and said ‘my God, this is going to take forever.”
Against Utah State, it took overtime. In the regular-season finale, a last-minute comeback rally over South Alabama, it took 59½ minutes.
“I didn’t think it could get any better than the win over South Alabama,” Martin said. “But it was.”
Martin is 54. He has coached college football since 1986. On Friday night in the most unexpected location, Tucson, all of his work paid off.
You’d have cried, too.
“In football, this can’t be the end of the story,” he said. “This has to be the beginning of the story.”
Chapter 1 was a hell of a read.