New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia knows the struggles of the Aggies’ football program all too well as an alum and former athlete within the department.
He was a baseball standout and school hall-of-famer who played in the Detroit Tigers’ organization before entering sports administration. After various administrative roles at New Mexico, Texas State and Missouri, and a stint as Southern Illinois’ athletic director from 2006 to 2014, Moccia came home to be NMSU’s AD two years ago.
WE. DID. IT.
When New Mexico State earned a bid to the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl with a win in the regular-season final over South Alabama, Moccia became emotional.
“There’s an awful lot of hurdles in the way some time,” Moccia told me last night. “Everybody saw the finish line and did what they had to do to get it done.”
It took NMSU 57 years to earn a bowl bid and the Aggies cashed in their experience at the Arizona Bowl with a thrilling 26-20 overtime win over Utah State at Arizona Stadium in front of a partisan NMSU crowd.
Not only can NMSU take the Arizona Bowl trophy home, it can travel back to Las Cruces today knowing the once-moribund program has reawakened, improving is postseason record to 3-0-1.
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So why did it take so long?
“It helps that the coach had an extended contract, which helps with recruiting a little bit,” said Moccia, who negotiated a three-year contract extension with coach Doug Martin — whom he did not hire — four games into this season.
New Mexico State was 2-2 at that point and 12-40 with the Aggies since Martin’s hire in 2013. The two wins — and hard-fought losses to respectable teams ASU and Troy in the first month was a signal of a turnaround after NMSU did not win more than three games in a under Martin.
“It also helps that the athletic program believes in the football coach,” Moccia said. “We were only one of two programs in the country that had five home games and no FCS opponents. Let that sink in a little bit that we were able to do this.”
New Mexico State (7-6) showed its grit this season by winning six of its seven victories by 10 points or less. It lost to Power 5 opponents ASU and Arkansas on the road but were competitive in each.
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Who knows when or if NMSU will return to Tucson? The Aggies switch from the Sun Belt — which has an affiliation with that conference — to becoming an independent next season.
Their 2018 schedule includes a rare home-and-home arrangement with Liberty. Similar to this season, New Mexico State will have two bye weeks
“I hope we can get into a conference right away,” Moccia said. “We want to get to the point like everybody else in our competition that we don’t have to play two games (against Power 5 or elite competition) but that’s not the case right now. The reality is right now you play with the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes you don’t have a great hand but you still win the game.”
Next season, the Aggies play at Minnesota and BYU.
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Somewhat a rivalry generated — New Mexico State and Utah State will play each other in Logan, Utah, on Sept. 8 in the 2018 regular season. They faced each other the last time New Mexico State was in a bowl in 1960, the Sun Bowl, in which New Mexico State won 20-13.
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Utah State QB Jordan Love had career-high totals in completions (25) and attempts (44) in Friday’s game. He finished with 254 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He was sacked three times.
One of the sacks was administered by former Tempe Mesquite linebacker Roy Lopez Jr., son of Sunnyside High School coach Roy Lopez, who was in attendance.
A friend of Lopez Jr.’s, Kevin Gonzales, carried his picture among the celebrating fans:
Two players with Tucson ties, who are sophomores, are on New Mexico State’s roster — LB Gabriel Flynn of Cienega High School and DB Austin Perkins of Tucson High School.
Perkins registered two tackles for NMSU.
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Former Arizona coach Warren Woodson was in his third season as NMSU’s coach in 1960 when the Aggies played in and won their previous bowl. Woodson coached at Arizona from 1952-56, when the “Cactus Comet” – Art Luppino – was starring for the Wildcats.
Luppino came on to the college football scene in a big way against New Mexico State on Sept. 18, 1954, gaining 228 yards on only six carries in his first collegiate start at halfback. Luppino, 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, ran for five touchdowns, four of them from scrimmage in the season-opener for the Wildcats. He also returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown to start the second half. He could have rushed for more yards but sat most of the second half because of the disparity of the score.
Nobody knew then that 63 years later New Mexico State would be on that same field making history of its own.
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New Mexico State shares another historic game with Arizona. The Aggies hosted Arizona in the game following John “Button” Salmon’s deathbed cry of “Bear Down” in 1926. The Wildcats won 7-0 adding to the legacy of Salmon’s message to his teammates.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.