Kevin’s Commentary: New Mexico Rivalry

Sept. 24, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. - New Mexico and Wyoming have been playing football for a long time.

In fact, Saturday’s Mountain West opener for both (1 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium) will be the 68th meeting between the two football programs. Not only is this series the Pokes’ fourth longest in football, it is their second longest active series (only Colorado State is longer).

Yet, few Cowboy fans would tell you that it is near the top of the rivalry list. I get it. New Mexico is not a bordering state, so it doesn’t bring the blood to a boil like the Rams, Utah or Brigham Young. It certainly hasn’t been considered a football power through the years. There haven’t been any controversial on-field incidents (brawls), or off-field capers (mascot-kidnapping).

Nevertheless Wyoming vs. New Mexico has produced tremendous games and performances by great players through the seasons. Way back when I was, shall we say, in my formative years, the Lobos were a dominating football team which earned several conference titles. During that time, in fact, the Lobos were feared far more than say BYU or CSU.

The Lobos have certainly experienced their ups and downs on the football field through the decades. But when I was coming to War Memorial Stadium in the early 60’s, they were very good. I have seen running backs make some great individual scoring runs through the years—Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders and Woody Green to name a few—but one of the most exciting runs I have ever seen an opponent back produce in our stadium was by a Lobo.

Sitting in the Knot Hole section at the north end of War Memorial, I saw New Mexico’s Bob Santiago take a toss sweep, hurdle a Cowboy tackler and out-run everyone down the east sideline for a 97-yard touchdown run. Until I looked it up, I didn’t realize that it was that long a scamper, but I do remember him hurdling Cowboy defenders for the touchdown that helped UNM beat the Cowboys 25-21 in 1962. Santiago was a small and quick speedster who made everyone on the opponent sideline hold their collective breath every time he touched the ball. By the way, he also threw a touchdown pass in that game.

That New Mexico win was part of a three-game Lobo winning streak during that time over some very good Wyoming teams. The following year at Albuquerque, New Mexico won 17-6, then in 1964 returned to Laramie and beat the Pokes on Homecoming by an identical 17-6 score. The Lobo of note those two seasons was an outstanding quarterback by the name of Stan Quintana. Not only did he run for one touchdown and pass for another in that ’64 game, but he recovered a fumble and made four tackles as a safety on defense. Remember, many players at that time played both ways.

I’ll throw a few more Lobo names whom you’ll more than likely remember.

One of my very favorite Wyoming assistant coaches, Rocky Long (1981-85), was a great quarterback for New Mexico during the late ‘60’s and early 70’s. Not only was he a great competitor—he directed the Lobos during a definite golden era for New Mexico football—but he was one of the best option quarterbacks I have ever seen. He rushed for over 2,000 yards during his career in the cherry and silver.

It seems that the Lobos have always had outstanding running backs. Mike Williams, who wore their colors from 1975 through 1978, was one of the best backs I had ever seen in the Western Athletic Conference. He was big and strong with outstanding speed and quickness. To this day he is still New Mexico’s second-leading rusher of all time with nearly 4,000 yards. I only had the opportunity to see him one time, but Don Perkins (1957-58) was a great running back who became an NFL star with the Dallas Cowboys. Winslow Oliver (1992-95), Fred Henry (1970-72) and Willie Turral (1982-85) were other backs that I remember vividly.

Hands down, however, UNM’s best back of all time was DonTrell Moore who rushed for an amazing 4,973 yards from 2002 to 2005. He possessed all the skills of a great back, but probably his most impressive quality was his durability. He was one of the toughest backs I have ever seen. Believe me, for him to produce that kind of yardage he had to play through a number of injuries. He is still around the program as analyst for the Lobo radio broadcasts.

New Mexico has had its share of great defenders too. Johnny Jackson (1981-84) was a tackling machine as a linebacker, and still leads in career stops. Two other linebackers come to mind in Houston Ross (1969-71) and Mike Forrest (1976-79). Robin Cole was one of the greatest defensive ends in WAC history, and made a great name for himself in the NFL. He is still fifth on UNM’s career tackle list.

My favorite Lobo of all time was a defender by trade, but did just about everything for his team. Brian Urlacher was listed as a linebacker/safety when he played for New Mexico from 1996 through 1999. But I remember him more as a safety. Of all the performances I recall when thinking of the Lobos, his 1999 game is foremost in my mind, and one of the great games I’ve ever seen by one player.

The Cowboys were a solid team in 1999, the last season of the Dana Dimel era. On an unusually warm late November day in Laramie, Wyoming, the Cowboys put together a big offensive day and defeated New Mexico by a 42-28 count. But Urlacher did everything he could to help the Lobos win the game. As the team’s strong safety he made four tackles. He also caught three passes out of a tight end set for two touchdowns. If that wasn’t enough, he returned a punt for 46 yards to set up another touchdown. I’ve never seen one player do all that in the same game. While no one could foresee his NFL greatness on that high country afternoon, one had to believe that he was going to play football on Sundays somewhere.

For the record, the Cowboys own a 36-31 advantage during the series that has seen many close, hard-fought games. In the last eight games, for instance, the two teams are 4-4. The Cowboys have won four of the last six games played since 2009, one by five points, and one by seven. The two losses have been by three and by seven. The teams have played every year since 1949.

These two first met on the old gridiron in November of 1930! No, it’s not the Border War, but the Wyoming-New Mexico series has been a very prominent one in the rich tradition of Cowboy football.