Woodson was let go after that '67 season even though State had finished with a 7-2-1 record that included a 90-0 win over Northern Arizona and the drubbing of New Mexico. The official reason: He had reached retirement age. The real reason: politics. "He had tremendous offensive football knowledge," says Gonzales, a star lineman under Woodson. "But he was of the old school, like Frank Kush and Woody Hayes—not strong on public relations." Another Aggie once said of Woodson, "I don't know how a man can sound that mean without cussin'."
Woodson's successor, Jim Wood, went 21-30-1 over five seasons (2-9 in his final one), and by the early '70s the spunk had left the program. The next four coaches were 52-133-2. Says Hess, "You almost had to plan to get it this bad."
There was no plan, but there are several theories about what did go wrong with Aggie football. Economics certainly played a role. With its sparse population (1.5 million in 1990) and depressed prices for many of its natural resources, New Mexico has a limited tax base. Today, the per capita income of Las Cruces is $9,000 a year, while El Paso, 45 minutes away by car, ranks as the country's second-poorest city. "We don't have a graduate who's going to give us a million dollars because he loves football," says Ed Groth, State's chief publicist.
Beginning in the early '70s, annual increases in the football budget failed to keep pace with cither inflation or the cost of doing business. On top of that, the school kept adding nonrevenue sports in response to Title IX (which mandated increased allocations for women's sports) and because of its own decision to leave the Missouri Valley Conference to join the Pacific Coast Athletic Association.
By the 1989 season football recruiting expenditures had shrunk to $19,500 a year (most Division I-A schools spend 10 times that amount), and the staff was asking prospects from Arizona to drive themselves to Las Cruces for a look. The most telling symptom of the program's decline was the turnover in assistant coaches, who saw New Mexico State only as a stepping-stone to better—and better-paying—programs. Says Gonzales, "It wasn't unusual in the career of a head coach to see 25 assistants come through."
The churning of players was almost as dramatic. Freshmen came in, saw little of worth in the program and quit. The term depth chart became an inside joke. "We had a lot of good players," recalls one Aggie, "but if somebody got hurt, we had a freshman in there who didn't know what he was doing." When Hess arrived, the Aggies were down to 42 scholarship players; the NCAA allows 92 (85 beginning in '94).
Hindsight makes it clear that the Aggies were like Wile E. Coyote, walking off a cliff with an anvil. Even so, coach after coach went to Las Cruces promising bowl games and conference titles: Wood was followed by Jim Bradley (23-31-1), Gil Krueger (17-37-1), Fred Zechman (8-25) and Knoll (4-40). All chased the roadrunner; all got "Beep-beep!" and tire tracks on their backs. Only Bradley is now a head coach, at Roswell (N.Mex.) High.
The option of dropping down to Division I-AA was discussed, says Gonzales, "but not seriously. It wouldn't have helped us very much, because we would have lost income. No more guarantees."
Wisely, Hess has tried to diminish expectations. A cowboy buff with a taste for Western art and Larry McMurtry novels, he walks the corridors of the athletic department, singing in a deep, warbly voice. So far, though, no one has caught him babbling about bowl games. "I haven't promised anything except to work at it," he says. "Because it's very, very hard."
Gonzales is trying to help by limiting budget increases for sports like volleyball and women's Softball. "And I'm taking heat for it," he concedes. The recruiting budget is up to $80,000, which is sufficient to at least allow Hess to bird-dog players from Southwest Conference recruiting lists. Aggie boosters have raised more than $400,000 this year for scholarships; coaching salaries have been raised enough to end the exodus of assistants; and Coca-Cola has built the Aggies a new weight room, the third largest in the country.