Through all the annals of great rivalry there may never have been more unwilling participants than the students and alumni of the University of New Mexico, who regard the adherents of New Mexico State with much the same respect that Tom the cat held for Jerry the mouse. Their conversations about the school to the south are only grudgingly offered, and even then contempt mingles with indifference, while smiles, chuckles and a lot of listen-you've-got-to-hear-this-one talk infiltrates the air. If Navy pulled a Pueblo every week, Army would act like this.
Last week, however, New Mexico met New Mexico State twice in basketball, back to back, your place my place, and talk came cheap. The Aggies of State were 16 and 0, undefeated, rated high up in the polls, just where New Mexico's Lobos were supposed to be, and were beginning to usurp much of the attention and territorial publicity that once belonged to UNM alone. Just as Tom took Jerry seriously only after the latter had stolen the milk, the cheese and the mousetrap, so New Mexico had to reassess its own philosophy.
Instantly, in the tunnel leading to the Aggie floor in Las Cruces that first game night, the Lobos understood all of this, and their insouciant vanity disappeared. Greg (Stretch) Howard was responsible. Waiting impatiently in line, staring at the floor, he barked, "Let's go," and pushed the teammate in front. In a moment the Lobos were rambling onto the floor, arrogant but determined, with their names and the outline of the state on their backs, their pride and domination of the game on the line. They were about to tell New Mexico State, Mi casa no es su casa. The Lobos were ready.
In the weeks leading up to this game New Mexico's preparedness was suspect. The team won the Western Athletic Conference championship last season, when it was not expected to, and defeated State twice. But in the NCAA regional tournament on its home floor in Albuquerque, New Mexico was beaten in two games, the second time by the much-ridiculed Aggies. This year, with two fine sophomores coming in, the Lobos were supposed to be winning the league easily, but they were not.
Coach Bob King soon developed problems with his three big men, Ron Sanford, sophomore Willie Long and Howard, who were moody, sulky and reluctant to share playing time. Little Petie Gibson, the 5'7" rookie playmaker, had trouble adjusting to King's deliberate offense, and the Lobos—an otherwise brobdingnagian group with little finesse—lost six road games, including their first three league contests. Further, Howard's behavior grew so erratic—among his transgressions was a traffic ticket, supposedly for driving while watching, through the rearview mirror, a TV set installed in the back seat of his car—that King, fed up, suspended him for "smoking." The Lobos were without their best player for six games (two of which they lost) until King finally took Howard back. That didn't help much—New Mexico lost three of its last four before the State games, and the team appeared finished for the year.
In Las Cruces, meanwhile, people were saying that Howard hadn't quit smoking and that King had taken it up. But Aggie partisans were much too preoccupied with their own team to dwell long on such gossip. Even considering a schedule that was more guacamole salad than red meat, New Mexico State, an independent, has had a remarkable year. Playing their first season in the sparkling, 13,000-seat Pan American Center, the Aggies had genuine talent in Slammin' Sam Lacey, the 6'9" center, and Guards Jimmy Collins and Charley Criss. Coach Lou Henson acknowledged his team's success graciously, but he was concerned about what he called King's "psychological advantages."
"We have to fit our games around theirs," he said, "but I would have thought he'd schedule us farther apart. I think King wanted to put us here to gain the advantage. Every year we play the first game in Las Cruces. It's always an advantage to go on the road first."
For last year's game in Las Cruces, UNM's Sanford was left at home with an eye injury—a fact extravagantly noted by the newspapers. To Henson, therefore, it seemed much too coincidental that on Tuesday of last week, the day before the first game, the Albuquerque papers headlined that Steve Shropshire, a starting forward for the Lobos, would not play because of a back injury.
"Here comes King again with his psychology," said Henson. "He says State could go unbeaten. He says these games aren't important to New Mexico. Now he says Shropshire can't play. They always get excuses before the game, then if they lose they've got them afterward. He goes overboard for that psychological edge. Personally, I think it's unethical."
"I know they're saying this is a pack of lies," said King, 250 miles to the north. "But my man can't even bend over. We'll be lucky to stay on the floor with New Mexico State."