RIO RANCHO – University of New Mexico women’s golf coach Jill Trujillo and Lobos baseball Tod Brown were shaking hands and sharing stories with fans, while Lobo Louie and Lobo Lucy were high-fiving fans — young and old.
Men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino autographed a kid’s T-shirt.
Football coach Danny Gonzales and athletic director Eddie Nuñez made the rounds like they are running for mayor and would have been kissing babies, if any were there. Of course, Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull, who opened the June 22 by welcoming UNM coaches’ visit, would be tougher to beat than many of the teams the Lobos face.
With a turnout of just about 100 during a two-hour “Lobos on the Road” meet-and-greet with about a dozen UNM coaches in the Rio Rancho Events Center, there was a general sense of optimism about the direction of Lobo athletics overall in the first of a series of such events this summer around the state that will also include stops in Artesia, Gallup, Farmington and Santa Fe.
“Sometimes you get locked in your little bubble in Albuquerque, but you have to realize that a lot of your fans may not live there — whether they live in Rio Rancho, Farmington, Artesia,” Pitino said. “So, it’s great for us to kind of get in front of them say thank you and make sure that they don’t get lost in the shuffle and just keep building as many fans as we possibly can.”
Nuñez said the event was meant as much as an opportunity for fans to hear from the coaches and administrators at UNM as for them to hear what the fans wanted to talk about.
Lobo Club Executive Director Jalen Dominguez noted there is no “ask” for fundraising or gathering of information for future asks at the events being planned.
“The messaging for us is really about engaging with the state,” he said. “It’s important because we’re the University of New Mexico, not Albuquerque.”
The messaging seems to have been working.
Though such numbers won’t be finalized until the fiscal year books close June 30, Dominguez said Lobo fundraising will see its fifth consecutive year of growth (it surpassed $7 million last year) and the Journal has been told Lobo athletics — bolstered by significant gains in ticket revenue projections — will again be in the black for its budget.
As for what the coaches and fans talked about, most of it was about what’s to come on the field.
“I get the same question from everyone: ‘Are you going to be any good?’ And rightfully so,” said Gonzales, entering his fourth season as Lobo football coach. “I tell them all, I like our football team. We’ll be better this year.”
Gonzales was accompanied by two football assistants who enjoyed considerable success on the sidelines while coaching the City of Vision’s high schools: Heath Ridenour, who led Cleveland High to state championships in 2015, 2019 and 2021, and David Howes, who guided the Rams to championships in 2014 and ’16. Howes’ wife Tami is the sister of the Lobos’ head coach.
Also stopping in at the Events Center was a small entourage from Rio Rancho Public Schools, including Superintendent Sue Cleveland, happy to see Howes and Ridenour again, and CHS tennis coach Diana LaCour.
While coaches were peppered with plenty of questions about how good their team will be or about future schedules, there were also some pats on the back and handshakes over the news announced earlier in the day that the UNM Athletics Department posted its best non-COVID semester grade point average ever — 3.41.
Though the praise may be better suited for those working in the Lobo Center for Student-Athlete Success, the home base for athletes’ academic services, the coaches were more than happy to talk up the good news.
UNM said 84 athletes had a 4.0 or better (up 11 from the fall semester) and 308 athletes had a 3.0 or better (up from 33 recorded in the spring semester 2022). The women’s golf team recorded a 4.02 GPA in the spring; the same team had a Lobos record 4.08 GPA in the fall.