THE CLOCK in the visitors locker room counts down toward kickoff, to the start of a new season: 10:25, 10:24, 10:23. Undefeated yet winless, the New Mexico State Aggies are full of hope. They spent the whole offseason vowing to themselves that this year will be different.
The players can hear 90,000 University of Florida fans getting jacked up in the stands above. It sounds like they're about to stomp through the ceiling. The humidity in Gainesville is 94 percent on this September evening. The Aggies players are washed in sweat. They chug water and inhale energy bars. Doug Martin, the head coach, paces outside. He wonders what to tell his team. He feels the hope, too. But he knows the history. Florida paid New Mexico State $1 million to come to Gainesville and take a whipping. The Gators could hardly have made a safer bet.
Few teams in the history of sports have lost more, for longer, than New Mexico State football. The rest of this paragraph is rated PG-13 for disturbing images. The Aggies haven't been to a bowl game since 1960. They haven't won eight games in a season since 1965. Over the past 40 years, they have four winning seasons; in that same span, they have 16 seasons in which they won two or fewer games. They have arrived in Gainesville on a 10-game losing streak. Which is not as bad as their 18-game losing streak in 2012 and 2013. Which was not as bad as their 27-game losing streak from 1988 to 1990. They are currently in the Sun Belt and have changed conferences three times since 2000, with one year as an independent.
It's hard enough to run even a good college football program. The challenges are manifold, especially for small-conference schools. Nearly half the teams in the FBS lose money. There's a growing sense that players ought to be paid in cash instead of just scholarships. The more that is known about concussions, the harder it is to watch players get their heads knocked around. All that, and you've been losing for the better part of 55 years? It's fair to wonder: Why is New Mexico State, and the growing legion of programs like it, still playing football at all?
There are answers -- some from the head, some from the heart. But right now the clock is ticking down on a Saturday night in Gainesville where the Aggies are 35-point underdogs. The fans in The Swamp are frothing. Martin calls his team together in the middle of the room. He has the players go down to one knee and say a silent prayer.
Then he speaks. "Guys," he says, "play like you belong here. You know why? Because your asses do belong here. They're gonna throw some haymakers. So are we. Hit these suckers in the mouth as hard as you can. Hit 'em for as long as you can hit 'em."
The Aggies rise up shouting. They swagger down the corridor and bounce in the tunnel and sprint onto the field. New season. Clean slate. Fresh start.
Florida wins 61-13.
THE REST OF THE SEASON so far: The Aggies lost 34-32 at home to Georgia State, one of two teams they beat last year. A week later, at home against UTEP -- one of their two big rivals -- they were up two touchdowns with four minutes left. But they gave up a 98-yard game-tying drive in regulation, then lost 50-47 in overtime. Last week, they were up two touchdowns again -- this time on New Mexico, their other big rival. But the Aggies were outscored 24-0 the rest of the way and lost 38-29.
So New Mexico State is 0-4. The losing streak is at 14, the longest in the country. ESPN's Football Power Index ranks the Aggies 119th out of 128 FBS teams.
On Saturday at noon, the Aggies play at 4-1 Ole Miss, No. 5 in the FPI and No. 14 in the Associated Press poll. The Rebels are averaging 46 points a game. They were embarrassed last week in a loss at Florida. That means they'll be angry; they'll be out for blood.
Lord have mercy.
FROM HIS OFFICE, above the south end zone of Aggie Memorial Stadium in Las Cruces, athletic director Mario Moccia watches two burrowing owls forage in the grass. He has named them Ren and Stimpy.
Burrowing owls are small, maybe a foot high. These two picked the slope above the end zone to burrow in the ground and make a home. They have stayed put, despite the game-day crowds and the construction noise and the squirrels that keep picking fights. The owls stuck to their spot and won.
Moccia, who played baseball for the Aggies in the '80s, is part of a group at New Mexico State that wants to help football stake its claim, too. He arrived in January. Martin was hired in 2013, and Garrey Carruthers, a former New Mexico governor, became university president that same year.
"Football must improve," Moccia says. "It must. It's kind of like a burn-the-boats mentality. Boys, we're not going home."
High school football teams in Florida and Texas routinely produce more than 300 FBS recruits a year. California and Georgia normally have between 150 and 250. Last year, Martin says, the state of New Mexico had four.
Still, Martin is building his football team with freshmen. That's a change from recent years, when New Mexico State coaches brought in loads of junior college transfers in hopes of winning quickly. But so many washed out that the Aggies ended up short-handed. The NCAA allows 85 scholarship players, but in 2013, Martin's first season, the Aggies had just 62.
Martin and his staff recruit a little around Phoenix, a bit in California, but they do most of their work in Texas. Everybody recruits Texas. That means the Aggies look for fixer-uppers -- players with potential who lack a little something that bigger schools like Ole Miss require. The Aggies found running back Larry Rose III in little Fairfield, Texas, between Dallas and Houston. He ran for 2,924 yards for a 15-1 team as a high school senior, but he weighed just 160 pounds. Last year, as a freshman, he ran for 1,102 yards. This year he's up to 180 pounds, and he already has 579 yards in four games. Against New Mexico, he had 260 yards rushing and touchdowns of 51, 63 and 67 yards.
Rose didn't know where Las Cruces was when New Mexico State first called him. He dreamed of playing for Baylor. But now he dreams of getting the Aggies to a bowl game. Mostly he dreams of just being able to keep playing football. "Me and my friends were discussing the other day, how would you live without football?" he says. "And none of us could answer the question. ... You don't know how it is until you have to live without it."
NEW MEXICO STATE, like most programs outside the Power 5 conferences, struggles with money. For the current fiscal year, according to budget numbers provided by the university, New Mexico State expects to transfer $1.8 million from its other funds to balance the team's budget of $4.3 million. (The athletic department as a whole expects to need $4.6 million to square its budget of $16.9 million.) Compare that to Texas, Alabama, Michigan, LSU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame: One study says that these six FBS football programs each brought in more than $100 million last year.
For now, the Aggies make a large chunk of their nut by taking beatings. Since 2011, they've been paid to play by such traditional powers as Georgia, Auburn, Texas, UCLA and LSU -- games they've lost by an average of 57-10. Ole Miss is paying $850,000 for Saturday's game. In this age of the College Football Playoff, New Mexico State has even more bargaining leverage, so paydays are getting even more lucrative. Big-time teams in search of a playoff bid want to avoid scheduling FCS programs and turning off the selection committee. Next year the Aggies will play Kentucky for $1.3 million and Texas A&M for $1.5 million.
And everybody involved with football at New Mexico State knows what happened at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. UAB officials decided last December to drop football, saying the costs of the program were rising far faster than money was coming in. After blowback from fans -- and, more importantly, $27 million in private and public donations -- the school decided to bring football back in 2017.
But Carruthers says dropping football at New Mexico State isn't a serious option. For one, he says football gives the university status -- and makes legislators more likely to give the university money for other projects. The number of scholarships for football also provides more scholarships in women's sports under Title IX. "[Dropping football] is not even a debatable issue, as far as I'm concerned," Carruthers says. "Don't bother to bring it to the table."
BY MOST MEASURES, the Aggies look to be barely hanging on. Last season, New Mexico State drew 12,269 fans per game, fourth-lowest in the FBS. (Ohio State averaged 106,296 a game last year, the most in college football.) So if the play on the field doesn't boost attendance, the program has to give fans another reason to show up. Moccia is putting DJs and water slides outside the stadium before games to draw a younger crowd. He has even given T-shirts to freshmen and asked them to run onto the field before games for the Aggie Ramble. He created a Stuff the Stadium campaign for New Mexico State's home opener, talking boosters and businesses all over town into buying blocks of tickets. The Aggies ended up with a crowd of 27,201 in a stadium that seats about 30,000. The week after, against rival UTEP, the Aggies drew 17,210.
Everybody is trying to raise more money, in cash or in kind. This year a local trucking company donated an 18-wheeler that New Mexico State uses to haul equipment on road trips. That saves time and cargo fees on airplanes, and it acts as a rolling billboard for Aggies football. This week it'll roll the 2,420 miles round-trip to the Ole Miss campus in Oxford and back.
While New Mexico State is one of only a dozen or so FBS schools that aren't giving athletes cost-of attendance payments, Martin can make sure his players eat. He says the team saved $70,000 by having them stay in their rooms the night before a home game, instead of checking into a hotel as most teams do. That money now goes toward nutrition. Coaches arranged for players to eat out together around town. It helps them meet people in Las Cruces, and the players have put a hurting on the buffet at the Golden Corral.
And Martin has proof that all of this could work, that a football team can be turned around.
Two weeks before the Florida game, the coach cues up a slide show for his team of the role model for every beat-down football program: Kansas State. Before Bill Snyder arrived as coach for the 1989 season, the Wildcats had been to one bowl -- ever -- and had just four winning seasons in the previous 52 years. Snyder's teams have won nine or more games 13 times, have finished in the top 10 six times and have won seven bowls.
Later, in his office, Martin talks about more modest goals for the Aggies. A signature win. Beating their rivals. Finishing .500 in the Sun Belt Conference. But in front of his team, he talks about bigger dreams. Kansas State dreams.
Don't tell me you can't win at New Mexico State," he tells his team. "But you can't get it done unless we're willing to be different. ... If you get it done -- and we think you can -- nobody for the rest of your life can take that away from you. You can be the ones that turned New Mexico State around."
A FEW PEOPLE remember better times.
Jack Nixon, who's in his 36th year as the New Mexico State radio announcer, remembers the Aggies' last big win: a 35-7 shocker over a ranked Arizona State team on the road in 1999. Nixon got so excited he rode back on the team bus, forgetting he left his keys in a friend's car. When the team got back to Las Cruces, he had to break into his own house.
Charley Johnson remembers the best days of all, back before the Aggies had to walk into the slaughterhouse against teams like Ole Miss. He was the quarterback on the best team the Aggies ever had, the 1960 squad that went 11-0 and beat Utah State in the Sun Bowl. Pervis Atkins, the only first-team All-America football player in school history, also played on that team. Warren Woodson, the coach, won 62 percent of his games over 10 seasons. He retired after the 1967 season. No Aggies coach since Woodson has left with a winning record.
Johnson went on to play 15 years in the NFL and later came back to New Mexico State as a professor of chemical engineering. He's 76 now and three-plus years into retirement. At halftime of this year's UTEP game, New Mexico State honored Johnson and other members of that 1960 team. It made him even happier when the Aggies went up 44-30 with four minutes left. He got up and headed for home. Then he heard UTEP come back to win on the radio. "I'm still not over it," he says.
Johnson says that since his days, the football program has rarely been stable. Sometimes the administration pays attention to football; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes coaches reach out to former players; sometimes they don't. Nobody is sure how much to care.
"We're getting better every year," he says. "But we still need time."
He and a bunch of Las Cruces friends gather on Saturday mornings to harass one another at a local joint called Burger Time. They're academics, businesspeople, doctors -- some of the brightest minds in town. They are weary of cheering lambs led to the slaughter. Some days they try to figure out how to make the Aggies winners again. They've been chewing it over for 25 years. They haven't solved the problem yet.
THE TEAM HEADS BACK to the locker room after the Florida game, dirty and bloody and angry. There's no good way to lose by 48.
But Martin sees a light or two in the distance. Last season, New Mexico State had 34 turnovers; tonight there was just one, an interception on a trick play. Rose had a 30-yard run and a 40-yard catch on a screen against a tough Florida defense. Wide receiver Teldrick Morgan, a former walk-on, made a gorgeous sliding catch for a touchdown.
Martin gathers his team one last time for the night.
"I'm proud of the way you guys fought with them," Martin says. "I won't tell you what I don't believe is true. You guys can beat anybody in the Sun Belt Conference. ... You guys see it?"
"Yes sir!" the team hollers back.
"I swear to God," Martin says, "I wouldn't say it if I didn't believe it."
There are many games ahead, including the one at Ole Miss. Odds are that one won't end well. But no matter how it ends, it'll start 0-0. A new life every week.
The players pack up to leave, maybe not full of hope, but at least hopeful.
Then they go outside to discover that somebody broke into one of their buses.