New Mexico State hadn’t won, or even played, a bowl game in 57 years. Then, two days before last New Year’s Eve, the Aggies broke both droughts. They beat Utah State, 26-20, in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson.
It was the culmination of years of work to remake a program.
When NMSU hired Doug Martin as coach ahead of 2013, the program was in disarray, with three winning seasons in 40 years.
“We had some severe problems,” Martin tells SB Nation. “We probably had 61 players on scholarship, and I knew that would take four recruiting classes to fix that problem.”
The program had fallen short of NCAA academic standards, costing it practice time in Martin’s first season. Years of losing had taken a toll on talent acquisition.
“We had to change the recruiting profile, and we had to get better talent in here and upgrade facilities, and that took some time,” Martin said.
“So the bowl game was really the farthest thing from our mind.”
Martin’s first four seasons in Las Cruces brought more losing. So when the tables turned in 2017, it meant everything.
NMSU went 2-10 twice, then 3-9 twice to start Martin’s tenure.
In 2017, the Aggies started out 2-4 but hit their stride. They won two of three in November to get themselves to 5-6, setting up a win-and-you’re-eligible home game against South Alabama on the first Saturday in December.
The Aggies won, 22-17, and many of the 26,000-some fans at Aggie Memorial Stadium — “a big crowd for us,” Martin said, and the biggest of the year — stormed the field.
“The stadium was just electric,” Martin said. He cried on the field afterward:
For a moment on a busy Championship Saturday, the college football world put a spotlight on NMSU. Scott Van Pelt plugged the Aggies on SportsCenter, an extra big deal in Las Cruces:
“It was exactly what I had envisioned the program looking like one day, in my mind,” Martin said. “That you’d have that type of fan base with that type of a passion. And we have a big ramp that goes up to our locker room. I just stood at the top of that ramp and watched everybody celebrate, because it was just such a great moment.”
A day after beating South Alabama, NMSU got the bowl bid it wanted.
Specifically, a bid to the Arizona Bowl. The school suggested it wouldn’t have been able to afford to play in any of the other bowls with Sun Belt ties, which are all much more distant from Las Cruces.
Martin expected a good turnout. They school thought advance ticket sales were strong. But the coach didn’t expect the game to draw 39,132, a record in the bowl’s three-year history, with most of the crowd pulling for NMSU. That was 13,000 more people than had gone to the school’s best-attended home game of the year.
“I never imagined it was going to be like what it was,” Martin said. “I felt like people were really excited about the program, and if you ever got the program going in the right direction, they would really embrace it. That was something special.”
Martin’s son, Cory, is the Aggies’ recruiting coordinator and receivers coach. During the second half, father turned to son and told him to turn and look at the crowd.
“You may never be a part of something like this again,” the head coach said then.
“Just a grassroots movement where a whole culture and program changes,” Martin called the bowl game. “It was remarkable.”
Neither team ever led by more than a touchdown. In the first quarter, Utah State returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
“In the past, that would have broken our team’s back to give up a kickoff like that,” Martin said. “But our kids went out there. They didn’t blink. They didn’t complain on the sidelines, nothing. They just went out and made something happen. That just stuck in my mind that that’s how much the culture here has changed.”
Immediately, NMSU’s Jason Huntley responded with a 100-yard runback of his own.
The game went to overtime at 20-20. Utah State shanked a field goal on its opening possession. NMSU senior running back Larry Rose III ran in from 21 yards out to win it.
“For Larry to score that winning touchdown couldn’t have ended better, Martin said. “Because he was one of the first recruits that we got to come here. And we didn’t have anything to sell him except a dream that they would be the class that would change this program and change the culture here.”
NMSU fans stormed the field again.
First time NMSU had made a bowl game since 1961. Headline worthy: pic.twitter.com/6wiiD4qY0o— Ari Alexander (@AriA1exander) December 30, 2017
After the bowl, the Aggies took a victory lap. Now, in their first year as an FBS independent, they’ve turned toward the future.
The team had a victory lap of sorts, including a parade in downtown Las Cruces, and there was another celebration in Albuquerque.
The parade happened during a recruiting visit weekend. There, the Aggies got a chance to sell a vision of something more. Now that they’d gotten over the hump, what else could they build together?
“Every single kid that we brought on a visit that weekend signed here” a month later, Martin said.