At the University of New Mexico, there isn’t much tradition surrounding the football program. There are no National Championship banners. No Heisman Trophy winners. The program has seen four conference championships with those coming in 1938, 1962, 1963 and 1964. There have been just 13 bowl appearances for UNM, with just four of those ending in wins. Which is why when there are winning seasons in Albuquerque, they are usually special to fans. One season, 1997, stands out as one of the more magical years that Lobo football has ever seen.
Prior to the hiring of Dennis Franchione at the end of 1991, the Lobos had dropped to the lowest of lows in their program history. The team’s last winning season was in 1982. In fact, that was the team’s only winning season since 1971.
Mike Sheppard had just been fired from the position of head coach when Franchione was hired. Under Sheppard, the Lobos were abysmal. Winning just nine games in a five-year span, while losing 50. Even though the 1991 season was the most successful under Sheppard, at 3-9, the Lobos suffered an embarrassing loss to Fresno State by a final of 94-17. By season’s end, the University and fans had seen enough of Mike Sheppard.
December 5th, 1991 may not ring a bell to many people. Unless of course you have a personal connection with the date. A birthday, a wedding day, the loss of a loved one. There is a myriad of reasons. For New Mexico Lobo football fans, it was the day of the future in many regards. A day that Lobo fans would grow to love less than six years later. That date was of course the hiring of Dennis Franchione from Southwest Texas State.
When Franchione arrived in Albuquerque he noticed many major issues already with the program. For one, no player wanted to accept the role as captain. The reason? Fear out of being ridiculed by the other students on campus. Fear of the inevitable question: when were the Lobos going to begin winning? Secondly, Franchione noticed that none of the players could lift very much weight in the training room.
Once figuring out what was wrong with the program, Franchione began the slow process of building it back up. Although the record didn’t show it, the 1992 Lobos were much better than any team under Sheppard. New Mexico finished 3-8 but were in many contests that season. Of those eight losses, five were by seven points or fewer. The previous season, Sheppard’s last, saw a 3-9 record, with just one loss being with less than 14 points.
In 1993, the Lobos fortune began to turn. After starting 0-3, the Lobos reeled off six wins over their final eight contests to end with a record of 6-5. The 1994 season was similar. After starting 0-5, the Lobos won five of their last seven games to end at 5-7. The 11 wins in those two seasons were the most the program had seen since 1981-82.
When the 1995 Lobo team sputtered to end the season, finishing at 4-7, many doubted whether the Lobo football team was going to turn the corner under Franchione. Then came 1996.
In what was a prelude to what would come in 1997, the 1996 Lobo season saw a great start. The Lobos were 4-1 after five contests, including almost pulling off a win over BYU. The Lobos had not beaten BYU since 1980. The Lobos did go on a three-game losing skid before winning two of their last three to finish 6-5. With his second winning season in Albuquerque, Franchione became the first coach in over 20 years to have two winning seasons while at UNM. It also showed that a group of experienced kids that knew how to win were coming back for the 1997 season.
BYU was expected to win the Mountain Division of the WAC in 1997. The Lobos were expected to finish mid-pack in the Mountain Division. New Mexico did have a favorable early season schedule; hosting Northern Arizona and New Mexico State to open the season.
The Lobos would take care of business those first two weeks; beating Northern Arizona 33-10, then blowing out New Mexico State 61-24 to begin the season 2-0. Running the football without much resistance in both games, averaging near 360 rushing yards per game in the two contests.
While visiting UTEP in week three, the Lobos dominated. Despite missing running back Lennox Gordon, the offense rolled with Dion Marion and Reginal Johnson. Johnson went for 104 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown before injuring his knee. Marion scored his only two touchdowns of the 1997 season during the game before his own injury in the game, which ended with a 38-20 Lobos victory.
In week four the Lobos finally faced some adversary. In Logan, Utah, visiting the Utah State Aggies, the Lobos had to battle the weather along with a stingy offense and defense of Utah State. In the pouring rain the Lobos struggled to run the football as good as they had in the first three games of the season, in which they averaged close to 350 rushing yards per game, due in large part to injuries of Lennox Gordon, Reginal Johnson and Dion Marion. Late in the game the Lobos trailed 22-17, with Graham Leigh just having thrown his second interception of the game, the defense stepped up with Bill Borchers causing a fumble that Brian Urlacher recovered at the Utah State 25-yard line. Five plays later, Graham Leigh kept it on a quarterback sneak to give the Lobos the lead. They converted a two-point conversion following the touchdown to go up 25-22. The Lobos then got lucky as a wide-open Steve Smith couldn’t haul in a deep bomb that would’ve gone for a touchdown. The Lobos defense held on downs to hold onto the 25-22 win, giving the Lobos a 4-0 record.
In the fifth game of the season New Mexico hosted SMU for homecoming. The game was broadcast nationally on ESPN2. The Lobos offense put up over 150 total yards in the first half but were held to just three points as SMU led after thirty minutes by a score of 7-3. The offense came to life in the second half for the Lobos, scoring on five of their six possessions, to take control of the game and win 22-15 over the Mustangs to go to 5-0 and 2-0 in the WAC.
In game number six the Lobos faced off with San Diego State in San Diego. New Mexico had lost 13 consecutive games to the Aztecs entering the 1997 matchup. In this game quarterback Graham Leigh came to play as he was responsible for three first half touchdowns. The Lobos would miss a couple of extra points, but still led 19-10 at halftime. In the second half, the Lobo offense put 10 points on the board in the third quarter, but the Aztecs stayed with UNM. In the middle of the fourth quarter, San Diego State got a touchdown and closed it within 29-21. On the ensuing drive, New Mexico faced a third and nine from the Aztec 39, that’s when Leigh found a wide-open Derrick Milner in the endzone for a touchdown. The catch was Milner’s first, and was huge in putting the Lobos up by two scores late in the game. On the next Aztec drive the Lobo defense knocked quarterback Kevin McKechnie out on a sack, and then turned the Aztecs over on downs and were able to run out the clock for a 36-21 win. The win over the Aztecs was a landmark win for Lobo football; it was the first time the Lobos had beaten Aztecs in 14 contests, and they became the first New Mexico football team to start 6-0 on a season.
When the Lobos played Rice in game number seven on the season, they played in front of a record 40,000 fans at University Stadium. What the 40,000 fans saw that night was stunning. The Owls of Rice attempted no passes during the game. The ran the wishbone offense non-stop and the Lobo defense had no answer for it. Graham Leigh also struggled during the game. That coupled with the Lobo defensive struggle led to a disappointing 35-23 home loss. The magical season appeared that it was going to take a turn as UNM fell to 6-1 and 3-1 in the WAC.
Game eight wasn’t any better for New Mexico as the Lobos visited Utah in Salt Lake City. The offense struggled yet again, putting up only 10 points. Kicker Colby Cason missed two field goals, which would come back to haunt UNM. The defense tried its best to keep UNM in the game by holding Utah to 279 total yards of offense. The Utes got a punt return for a touchdown in the second half to take the lead. Then the Utes picked off Graham Leigh on the Lobos’ final possession to preserve a 15-10 record. The loss seemed to deflate the Lobos as they fell to 6-2 and 3-2 in the WAC.
A game against a winless foe in game number nine was just was the doctor ordered. Visiting TCU, the Lobos rebounded in a big way, and put themselves back into control of their own destiny. Wide receiver Pascal Volz caught seven passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns in the win. The Lobos held a 17-10 halftime lead, and then exploded in the second half with 23 unanswered points to get a much needed, confidence building win by a final of 40-10.
With the Lobos sitting at 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the WAC, they would welcome BYU to Albuquerque. The Lobos had not beaten BYU since 1980. To make matters even tougher, a major snowstorm had moved through the area the night before, making field conditions tough and the temperature low in the Saturday evening game. The game was so big that ESPN2 came to broadcast it. The Lobos and Cougars traded punches, each scoring after the other would score. At halftime the game was tied 21-21. The teams would trade touchdowns again in the third quarter and entered the fourth tied at 28-28. In the fourth quarter the Lobos defense was able to hold, while the offense kept up their end of the deal. Graham Leigh found Milton Thomas from 17 yards out early in the quarter to give the Lobos a 35-28 lead. Then both teams would trade punts. With 2:39 left to play, the Lobos forced BYU to punt again. The Leigh lead offense then would grind out a drive that took 2:20 off the clock and included a 35-yard run by Leigh on a third and seven from the BYU 36. The drive ended with a field goal from Colby Cason to put the game out of reach at 38-28, which ended up being the final. The win was the Lobos first over BYU in 27 years and put the Lobos one win away from clinching the WAC’s Mountain Division and giving them a trip to Las Vegas for the WAC Championship Game.
Game number 11 for the Lobos was Senior Day in Albuquerque against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. It was the final game for many Lobo seniors that had built the program into a winner and was now one win away from accomplishing their goal when the season began: get to the WAC Championship Game. Tulsa struggled all game long on both sides of the ball. The Lobos defense forced two Tulsa turnovers in the first half. Graham Leigh would throw three first half touchdowns and UNM took a 24-13 lead into intermission.
In the second half the Lobo defense continued its assault on Tulsa, forcing two more turnovers and shutting out the Golden Hurricane in the second half. The Lobos offense rolled in the second half, scoring 27 points to pull away to a 51-13 win that secured the Lobos spot in the WAC Championship Game.
The week of the WAC Championship Game was huge also for the Lobos. That week UNM was ranked in the Top 25 poll for the first time since the 1964 season. New Mexico was featured on College Gameday on ESPN the morning of the game. Despite the attention, and a three-game winning streak, the Lobos were over matched in the WAC Championship game against Colorado State. The Rams relied on Kevin McDougal to carry them, as he ran for 255 yards and three touchdowns on the Lobos, as the Rams won 41-13.
The Lobos, though, did receive a bowl invitation to end the 1997 season. They would play in Tucson in the Insight.com Bowl against the Arizona Wildcats. The bowl game was the Lobos’ sixth ever and their first since 1961.
The bowl game was a struggle for the Lobos offense as they could only muster up seven points through the first three and a half quarters. A fourth quarter touchdown pulled UNM to within 20-14, but the offense could do no more as the Lobos dream season ended on a sour note.
Things have changed a lot in the 23 years since that magical season. Dennis Franchione moved on at season’s end to TCU. Rocky Long became the head coach at UNM and would resurrect his lore among UNM Football fans that he had during his playing days at UNM. The Lobos have seen seven more bowl appearances after their 1997 season, including winning two of them. A lot has changed, yes, but the magic still lives on in Albuquerque 23 years later.