I saw a miracle this week, and, no, it wasn’t a Christmas miracle or a Day-After-Christmas miracle.
It came in the form of Doug Martin, a fit-looking 54-year-old who presumably doesn’t walk on water, but has his New Mexico State Aggies playing in a bowl game on Friday against Utah State in the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
I never thought I’d see the day NMSU (6-6) would be in a bowl game.
NMSU happens to be my alma mater. You expect what you expect or at least what you’re used to and, well, I’ve seen the bottom of the football barrel and to be honest NMSU was it for a number of years, decades in fact.
This will be NMSU’s first bowl game appearance in 57 years. Heck, the U.S. population has nearly doubled in that time span, going from 180 million to nearly 350 million.
My evidence is: when I covered the team for the Albuquerque Journal in the mid-1980s – and at the same time worked in the school’s sports information office as a student – the Aggies went 12-43 while I was there. There were times it was worse (before I got there) and many times worse (after I left).
The school has had just two winning seasons since 1987. That’s two in 30 years – if you are keeping score, something NMSU had a hard time doing when I was there.
It’s been a “dumpster fire” for a long time and it clearly was before Martin arrived in 2013. And, well, that was his description of how it was before he got there. How did he know?
Well, he had been there just two years prior as an assistant coach. He knew what he was up against.
Still, what was he thinking in going back? No one leaves and then comes back. Either he’s a stubborn man or a determined one.
“I’ve been told that,” he said laughing when told no one leaves and comes back. “But I saw the potential.
“I saw the enthusiasm for football; the want of a program but just not knowing how to get there. We accepted that challenge.”
Still, historically NMSU has been a place where you go to get fired. They’ve gone through five since the late 1980s with little to no success.
“It’s been a challenge,” Martin said a few minutes after his team’s bus arrived at the Westin La Paloma in preparation for Friday night’s game. “I talked to everyone before I came back and said, ‘you know you can’t expect to have a quick fix on this. This is a four- or five-year project. If you guys are willing to invest in that, then we are willing to do something.”
Martin, a former head coach at Kent State and an assistant at Boston College, had a plan. As he put it, no one had come in and fixed the problems. They were all looking for a quick solution. In fact, his first recruiting class is this year’s seniors. He called that “rewarding and the special thing about it.”
He added later: “We fixed the problems – academically, facilities, recruiting and talent. Now it has a chance to be sustainable, if our university can get on board. They’ve got to get on board.”
After the third year there, after going 3-9, he felt he had something – even with that record.
“You could see our talent level was catching up to other people,” he said. “We were headed in the right direction. I thought we’d make that jump last year, but things just fell in place this year.”
So much so, for just the fourth time in more than 100 years, NMSU made it a clean sweep of rivals New Mexico and UTEP in basketball and football. That is four games in basketball and two in football. These are NMSU glory days.
“It was a Grand Slam sweep,” said Mario Moccia, the school’s athletic director. “We had four wins in basketball and two in football. That kind of puts it in perspective.”
Now, he’s at the end of what has “been the most satisfying” season of his career. And, that’s understandable given all the losing that NMSU had gone through.
NMSU could have easily gone in another direction after Martin’s fourth season, after he went 10-38. But, Moccia stuck with him.
“We made the decision that we’ve got to stick with the head coach,” he said. “We were recycling coaches every four years. You see that happening a lot now, where if you don’t win in three years you are out.”
And, well, Moccia believed in him. “You don’t know (what’s going to happen) because you don’t have the crystal ball under your desk,” he said. “When we were 0-7 (in 2015 and his first year as AD there) I said he was our coach. It wasn’t popular with everybody but at the end of the day you have to go with what your gut tells you. I just felt we had to give a coach time to see if his plan was the right plan.”
Apparently, it worked; he’s led NMSU to a bowl game. Who would have thought anyone would have done that? Not me … given what I know.