The Land of Disenchantment: Is Now the Time New Mexico State Finally Joins the Mountain West?
Will the Lobos want the Aggies in the same league?
Can New Mexico and NMSU get along?
The Mountain West Conference is flirting with expansion. Commissioner Craig Thompson leaked the news last week. Gonzaga University is the headliner in this story. Especially since it’s March. Who wouldn’t want the Zags in their basketball conference? All Mark Few has done is lead Gonzaga to 20 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Of course, this chatter ignores the fact that Gonzaga is a 7,000 student, private, Catholic school—a far cry from the typical MWC institution. But hey, this isn’t about academics.
Beyond Gonzaga, Thompson indicated that he’s had conversations with other schools too. Bringing BYU back into the conference, even for an all-but-football membership, might matter even more for the MWC. It’s difficult to know whether this remarriage is feasible following the BYU’s messy exit from the conference in 2010, but Gonzaga leaving the West Coast Conference might be enough to push BYU to make a change.
But here’s what those of us in the Land of Enchantment want to know: What about New Mexico State University? Is now the moment when the state’s two Division I schools finally reunite in an athletic conference?
It’s certainly been a while.
For the past 68 years, the New Mexico Lobos have bounced from one conference to another, seemingly always one step ahead of NMSU. Oh, the two schools—separated by 224 miles, via I-25, of desolate desert—have maintained an intense rivalry. In fact, the two schools play home-and-home basketball contests every year. The NMSU-UNM football game is almost always the best-attended football game of the year in the state. And UNM poaching of Paul Weir from NMSU last year spiced things up even further. So the “Rio Grande Rivalry” is alive and well.
But to share the same conference? That prospect seems to dig deeper into the psyche of the University of New Mexico.
Together: The Border Conference
In 1931, Thomas Popejoy, the faculty director of athletics at UNM, contacted his counterpart in Las Cruces. “I am writing you this letter to ask if the New Mexico Agricultural College [NMSU] would be interested in forming a conference,” the short note read. Indeed NMSU was interested.
Thus in April 1931, representatives from UNM, NMSU, Arizona State, Arizona, and Northern Arizona met and established the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
UTEP and Texas Tech joined shortly thereafter.
For the next two decades, the Border Conference flourished. In their first year as members of the same conference, UNM and NMSU played to a 0-0 tie in their annual football game. But things improved from there. The two schools found common ground in, among other things, insisting that Texas Tech was always cheating. Actually that complaint brought all the non-Texas schools together. In 1939, the Border institutions voted to boot TTU out of the conference for repeatedly using ineligible players. Take that Red Raiders!
The banishment lasted only one year, but justice (of some sort) had been served.
Split: The Skyline Conference
In 1951, New Mexico left the Border Conference (and New Mexico State) for the Mountain States Conference (also known as the Skyline Conference). The move revealed something telling about UNM’s aspirations.
UNM left for several reasons. New Mexico had another scuffle with Texas Tech, this one over Tech’s insistence that African American athletes could not compete at their facilities in Lubbock. UNM students protested this lack of racial tolerance by the school’s conference mates.
The move, however, did not occur because of Texas Tech or because UNM wanted better athletic competition. On the contrary. “Athletically speaking we were not doing so well in the Border Conference,” one UNM representative said as the university announced its move. “With membership in the Skyline Eight, we’ll have to improve.”
More than any specific policy, UNM switched conferences because it believed it could do better, as an institution, by looking north. UNM saw its future running along the ridges of the Rocky Mountains. Colorado State, Utah, Wyoming, and Brigham Young University—these were the members of the Skyline Conference that attracted New Mexico.
Divided: The WAC
After a decade in the Skyline Conference, a change occurred again. UNM, Utah, Wyoming, and Brigham Young voted to ditch the rest of its Skyline Conference-mates (Colorado had already left; the University of Denver, Colorado State, and Utah State became independents) and create a new athletic circuit: The Western Athletic Conference (WAC).
This league was, to a certain extent, a blending of the Border and Skyline concepts. Arizona and Arizona State joined the Skyline four. The Southwest and the Rocky Mountains merged. The WAC began play in 1962. A few years later, UTEP and Colorado State were allowed in.
UNM won the first WAC football championship. The school also purportedly agreed to sponsor NMSU’s entry into the WAC during the mid-1960s.
But nothing came of the rumors. New Mexico State, an independent, was never given an invitation to join the WAC. At least not until UNM was long gone.
Repudiated: The Mountain West Conference
By 1999, the WAC had grown to an unwieldy consortium of sixteen schools. Believing better television contracts could be negotiated with a realignment, BYU, Utah, and Wyoming again led a revolt—just as they had from the Skyline Conference. UNM, Air Force, UNLV and San Diego State were invited to round out the original Mountain West Conference. New Mexico State, then a member of the California-centered Big West, did not receive an invitation. Probably not even a thought in the whole process.
In 2005, the WAC (the bygone home of the University of New Mexico) finally invited NMSU to join up.
When asked about the possibility of joining the Mountain West in 2012, and about the support NMSU would receive from UNM for such a move, NMSU’s President at the time was diplomatic: “I have no reason to believe the University of New Mexico wouldn’t be supportive of us.”
The double negative; hardly a confident statement.
Fast forward to today. The chatter is back about New Mexico State University joining the Mountain West Conference. One reputable website (OK, it was this one) included NMSU in its “Dream Mountain West Expansion Scenario.”
There is some broader context here. There are seven states that have just two NCAA Division I universities: Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Of those states, only two (Montana and South Dakota) have universities which share the same athletic conference. But those two states, like New Mexico, face geographical challenges (read: isolation) unlike most other parts of the United States.
So is a Land of Enchantment reunion in order? We’ll see. At the very least, the fact that after nearly 70 years of Lobos-Aggies disunion the topic of sharing the same athletic conference has once again arisen suggests that the rejoinder might just happen. Maybe sooner rather than later.