TUCSON — For those who dislike cheering for coaches with multimillion-dollar contracts — and numerous players who will soon have their own — don’t ignore this.
Coming up Friday from Arizona Stadium is the third annual Arizona Bowl.
It’s a low-profile event if ever there was one. It won’t wow you with its selfness. The stadium probably won’t be full. TV commentators will almost surely mispronounce unfamiliar names (try saying Mohelika Uasike for the first time).
That’s OK, because the game involves two deserving teams that have been to football purgatory and back: Utah State and New Mexico State.
Go ahead and roll your eyes at the near-professional nature of monster programs like Alabama and Ohio State. Feel free to mourn the lack of amateurism in the college game. Then switch on the TV and enjoy seeing two teams that are deliriously happy to be here.
USU is back in a bowl after missing last season.
“Sometimes when it becomes a routine you allow staleness to set in and you allow, ‘Yeah, we always do this,’” USU coach Matt Wells said. “No. Utah State doesn’t always go to bowl games, and it hasn’t.”
He got that right. USU once went 33 years without attending a bowl. In the 1990s, the Aggies made a couple of trips to the Las Vegas Bowl, but then nothing until this decade, when Gary Andersen recharged the program. Since 2011, USU has been to six bowls.
Still, Wells has his point. Bowl games haven’t been plentiful enough at USU to get jaded.
“To be in six bowl games in the last seven years is a huge deal here,” Wells said.
True enough. USU still can’t take these things for granted. For starters, just like New Mexico State, the Logan-based Aggies went many years without a winning record. From 1982 to 2010, USU had just two plus-.500 seasons. In one stretch, there were 13 consecutive losing campaigns.
“I think you’ll see a Utah State team that is very excited to be there,” Wells said.
Then there are the Las Cruces-based Aggies. They set the bar for football failure. Through the late 1960s and early ’70s they teetered just below .500, then slipped into the abyss. Soon they had 15 consecutive losing seasons, followed shortly by six more. The early 2000s brought new despair. From 2000 until this year they never won more than four games in a season.
In the process, they became the least successful team in America, going 57 years without attending a bowl. Upon being invited this year, NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia called it “one of the top highlights in history of New Mexico State athletics.”
Which tells you all you need to know.
Despite NMSU’s 6-6 record, there wasn’t a guarantee it would be bowling this year. Media reports said none of the other bowls tied to the Sun Belt Conference was workable for NMSU, due to budgetary constraints and travel distance. Tucson is a 275-mile drive from Las Cruces. That’s not bad, especially since bowl games heretofore have been, well, a million miles away.
Last time NMSU was in a bowl game, it was in 1960 against Utah State.
“I know the history very, very well,” Wells said.
While it’s true USU recently has been a bowl regular, attending still isn’t automatic. USU finished 6-7 in 2015, thanks to a bowl loss to Akron, and didn’t go bowling the last year.
Although it’s hard not to link the schools by their common nickname, and that long-ago Sun Bowl, Wells isn’t totally buying the tie-in.
“Just for all of you: Our players don’t care about any of that stuff, really. They know what their record is. The players flip on the tape and they’re a good team, so we respect our opponent. We respect what they do. They’re very good on special teams, as well,” Wells said. “They’ve done some really good stuff. Our players don’t look at conference records or last year’s records, as well as nicknames being the same.”
Whether players care about trivia shouldn’t stop fans from caring. They’ve waited long enough. Simply seeing two teams happy to be there is worth a watch. The big bowl games feature excellent pairings. But so does this one. It was 57 years in the making.