The Game's challenge number eight could not have come at a more opportune time. Over the past couple of weeks, New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies has added his voice to a statement that New Mexico head coach Steve Alford has made several times: playing the Rio Grande Rivalry game once a year is enough. Having lived in the state all my life, and been to these games both in the Pit and in the Pan American Center over more years than the two coaches have been in the state combined, I write this history to help back up my contention that a rivalry this intense and this fiercely contested cannot be played too often. Each fan base deserves to see this matchup every year.
Followers of midmajority.com have gotten to visit each of the past four games in the series: Andrew Bolte brought us the November 2011 game in Albuquerque
, and I have written about the next three games: December 2011 in Las Cruces
; December 15, 2012, in Albuquerque
; and December 19, 2012, in Las Cruces
. (Based on the results of the games, maybe I should hand this task off to Andrew...)
New Mexico A&M played its first basketball game ever on December 22, 1904, in Las Cruces against the New Mexico Lobos. Although the Lobos had played six prior games against Albuquerque-area teams, this was also the first collegiate game for UNM. The Lobos won that first game in overtime by the unlikely score of 21-9. The pairing has been renewed 209 times, with UNM winning 115 games. Of the 108 games played in Albuquerque, the Lobos have won 71, including a game in 1950 that is listed as a neutral site contest (?). Of the 101 games played in Las Cruces, the Aggies have won 58. Thirteen contests have been extended into overtime, with three of these requiring a second overtime period to produce a winner.
This has been a series with wild competitive swings over time. The Lobos won the first eight games stretching through 1915. In 1916-23, the Aggies took the next ten consecutively. Starting in 1925, the Lobos went on a seventeen game streak, lost one, and then took four more. Starting with the fourth meeting of 1936 (the Border Conference was small, and apparently, for a time the teams met four times a season, a two-game weekend at your place, another at ours), the Aggies took nineteen straight through the end of 1940. Lobo win streaks ran from 1944 through 1949 (ten games), from 1961-early 1966 (nine games), from 1995 to 1999 (seven straight), and from 2007-2010 (again seven games).
New Mexico and New Mexico A&M were 1932 charter members of the Border Conference, bringing them together with three schools located in what had been a few decades earlier in the western part of the New Mexico Territory: Arizona, Northern Arizona Normal School (now Northern Arizona University), and Arizona State Teacher's College (now Arizona State University). Texas Tech was added a year later; the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP) joined in 1936, followed by in 1942 by Hardin-Simmons (now a Division III program in Abilene, Texas) and West Texas State (now West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas, and a member of Division II).
In 1951, both NMSU and UNM made the shift into the NCAA University Division (now Division I), formed three years earlier. That year, the Lobos left the Border Conference to join the Mountain States Conference, also commonly known as the "Skyline Six." The Lobos were added along with Montana to the renamed "Skyline Eight" with Brigham Young, Utah, Utah State, Colorado State, Denver, and Wyoming. Both schools have since changed conferences several times: UNM was a founding member of the WAC in 1963 and abandoned it for the new Mountain West in 2000; the Aggies were independent after failing to get a WAC invitation at that conference's inception, then began a football-driven journey that has taken them to the Missouri Valley (1973), the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (1973, later the Big West), the Sunbelt (2001), and the WAC (2006). Despite all those changes in affiliation, New Mexico and New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State, have continued to play at least twice annually since the teams restored their programs, suspended during World War II, in the 1945-46 season. (NMSU's rivalry with UTEP resumed in 1944-45; it also has been played twice annually since.)
Twice in the post-war era the schools have met three times. Those years illustrate the competitiveness of this rivalry.
In 1961, the three games were played within eleven days. On December 18, the Aggies won in Albuquerque 76-72 in two overtimes. On December 26, the Lobos came to Las Cruces; the Aggies won handily, 86-62. Two nights later, after the Aggies hosted BYU on the 27th, the Aggies and Lobos played again in the first round of the Sun Bowl Tournament in El Paso, an 80-76 victory by UNM.
1968 was a special year for both teams; both were ranked in the top ten nationally. UNM won both regular season contests, January 6 in Las Cruces 81-69 and February 10 in Albuquerque 72-71. Both teams went to the NCAA Tournament that year; it was UNM's first invitation. Both played in the West Regional hosted by UNM in Albuquerque. After Santa Clara beat the Lobos and Lew Alcindor-led UCLA beat the Aggies, the two met in the consolation game (yes, there were once regional consolation games) won by the Aggies 62-58.
Over the decades, there have been many, many outstanding games in the series. (Thanks for reminders of the details on some of these games to the schools' basketball media guides and articles from the archives of Albuquerque Journal, the Las Cruces Sun-News, and the Albuquerque Tribune.) Here are short descriptions of a few classics:
On December 17, 1966, the teams met at Las Cruces High School. (The Bulldog gym seats 4,000 and is twice the size that Williams Gym on the NMSU campus was; it's about the same size as the current configuration of Johnson Gym in Albuquerque, precursor to the Pit. Aggie games were played there for several years before the opening of the Pan American Center.) The Lobos, having defeated defending national champion Texas Western in El Paso on the previous night, believed a win in Las Cruces might get them to the top spot in the national rankings. The game went to overtime and, typical of the LCHS Gym (from someone who ran that scoreboard a few years later), the clock had malfunctioned; time was being kept on a stopwatch at the scorer's table. With UNM leading by one and about two seconds remaining, Lobo Ben Monroe got an inbounds pass, dribbled, and took a haphazard shot after he thought the game was over, running over Aggie Ernie Turner in the process. After a long discussion, the officials decided that the game had not yet ended, called a foul on Monroe and awarded Turner two free throws with no time on the clock. He made them both and the Aggies won, 62-61.
February 1, 1969, found the teams in Albuquerque's University Arena, commonly known as "the Pit." A typical game between Bob King's Lobos and Lou Henson's Aggies found the Lobos ahead by two with the ball late in the game. Aggie Charlie Criss stole the ball from Lobo Stretch Howard (who made 16 of 18 shots from the floor that night), and scampered down the court for the game-tying layup with about six seconds to play. The Lobos passed the ball to point guard Petie Gibson, about two steps into the front court. Gibson let fly and his shot found nothing but the bottom of the net. Lobos win, 68-66. (The rules did not add #superhoops
for just over another decade.)
On December 1, 1976, Norm Ellenberger brought his Lobos, including future Laker Michael Cooper and all-time great Marvin Johnson, to the Pan American Center to face Ken Hayes' Aggies. Former Hobbs, New Mexico, star Richard Robinson scored 28 points to lead the Aggies to a 112-103 victory. The return match in Albuquerque saw the Lobos lead 23-6, 45-32, then 69-65 with three minutes remaining; the Aggies responded with a 10-0 run before a last-minute Lobo shot made the final score 75-71, NMSU.
December 11, 1993, found the Lobos leading the Aggies 35-25 at the intermission in the Pit. They stretched their lead at one point to fifteen, and were up by nine with 1:20 to play. Neil McCarthy's Aggies adopted a fouling strategy, and the Lobos did not make the free throws; the Aggies outscored UNM 16-7 to finish regulation tied. The first overtime began with a 6-0 Lobo run and they led by nine with under a minute remaining; three Aggie #superhoops
forced a second extra period. The Aggies were on fire at this point and outscored the Lobos 17-9 in the second overtime to win 112-104; 104 points is still the largest number scored by UNM in a loss. (I was at this game, and my brother left with about three minutes to play to beat the traffic home; he got to watch the second overtime on TV. Mom and I stayed for the finish; we entered the arena under clear skies, but there was two inches of snow everywhere at the game's end.)
Eric Channing's 28 points went for naught in a 68-65 overtime December 7, 2000, Aggie loss in Las Cruces. This game was seemingly won by UNM in regulation on a buzzer-beating tip-in by Wayland White. After a lengthy review, the officials brought the teams, who were already changing after the game, back to the floor for the overtime. Both teams felt like the Lobos won this one twice that night.
There have been so many more: Bernard Hardin led the Lobos back from an eight-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining to win 68-67 in 1972. Darryl Minniefield banked in a 1978 shot with eleven seconds left to give the Lobos their first lead of the game and, after some free throws, the 96-93 victory. Darrell McGee became the hero in 1988 by scoring a driving layup to give the Lobos a 72-71 victory, after he was nearly the goat when his foul with eight seconds remaining gave the Aggies two free throws and the lead. Keith Hill's 1989 jumper with ten seconds to play gave the Aggies a 74-73 win over the Luc Longley-led Lobos. Clayton Shields' 1995 three-pointer at the buzzer delivered a 69-68 Lobo victory in Las Cruces. Kenny Thomas returned from getting a tooth knocked out in the first half of a 1996 game; after having the tooth re-placed at halftime, he led the Lobos to an 84-82 overtime victory in Albuquerque. The Aggies 76-65 victory broke a twelve game 1999 win streak by the twelfth-ranked Lobos. Jason Fontenet's layup won a November 2002 game for the Aggies, 59-58, when Lobo Mark Waters running shot missed at the horn.
These two programs have always been successful nationally. New Mexico State has appeared in nineteen NCAA tournaments and in four NITs. New Mexico has appeared in the NIT eighteen times (more than any school except St. John's and Bradley) and in thirteen NCAA tournaments. In 2008, James Staley of the Albuquerque Tribune (Staley is now at the Las Cruces Sun-News) wrote a blog post comparing the history of the two programs with the Aggies leading in six of eight categories; in it he wondered what the comparison would look like in five years Here are the categories he used for comparison, updated through January 31, 2013, which now divide exactly evenly: · All-time wins: UNM 2,554; NMSU 2,395.· All-time win percentage: NMSU 57.2%; UNM 55.1%· Head-to-head wins: UNM 115; NMSU 95· Twenty-win seasons: UNM 25; NMSU 24· NCAA tournament bids: NMSU 19; UNM 13· NCAA tournament wins: NMSU 10; UNM 8· NCAA win percentage: UNM 36.4%; NMSU 32.3%· NCAA tournament milestones: NMSU Final Four 1970, Sweet Sixteen 1992; UNM has never advanced past the second round.
This is a rivalry that has been contested more times than all but twelve in the history of major college basketball. The pairings that have been played more often were all conference games at the time of a piece about this I read from 2009; later changes have separated Kansas-Missouri and BYU-Utah. (The others are Oregon-Oregon State, Oregon Washington, Oregon State-Washington, Oregon State-Washington State, Washington-Washington State, Kansas-Kansas State, Cal-Stanford, North Carolina-Duke, and North Carolina-North Carolina State.)
New Mexico has a history of encouraging in-state competition among its public institutions. For a long period, which I remember to be in the 1980s and 1990s, the state appropriations budgets for UNM and NMSU included a provision requiring their men's basketball teams schedule at least one of the state's Division II schools. Let's hope that the administrations and coaching staffs at the two schools come to their senses and continue to renew their rivalry twice annually without encouraging the legislature's involvement.
McKinley Boston, Paul Krebs, Steve Alford, and Marvin Menzies: Don't make the mistake that Texas and Texas A&M have, or that Kansas and Missouri have; both seem have put their long-term rivalries aside for the money that came from conference changes. We avoided that mistake in 1951! Now, don't take away a New Mexico institution. The New Mexico State University Aggies and the New Mexico Lobos should play twice every year, once on each campus, as they have consistently for nearly seventy years.