Albuquerque Journal – Aug 8, 2005 – Greg Archuleta – Rocky Long is not a good candidate for psychoanalysis. His University of New Mexico football program, however, just might be.
Long’s eighth season as UNM coach gets in full swing Monday as the team begins fall practice for the 2005 season.
Under Long, the one-time Lobos quarterback, the program is enjoying one of its most prosperous periods: three straight Mountain West Conference runner-up finishes, three straight bowl-game appearances for the first time in the school’s 106-year history.
Losses in each bowl game, however, have kept UNM from finishing on a positive note.
“I don’t agree with that,” Long says. “I think we’ve ended the last three seasons on a positive note. I don’t agree that losing a bowl game eliminates everything you’ve done during the season.”
No, but the fact is that UNM hasn’t felt good about itself at the end of December in 2002, ’03 or ’04.
This is supposed to be a feel-good storyÃ¢â‚¬â€? namely, what can the Lobos do to feel good about themselves at the end of December 2005?
The Lobos are in full preseason-speak mode, saying the MWC title is the goal, they’ve learned from past mistakes, they’ve worked harder this offseason than they ever have. …
Yada, yada, yada. The bottom line is UNM hasn’t won a conference championship in 41 years or a bowl game in 44. Does taking the next step simply mean working harder?
Or does it go deeper? Do the Lobos have a psychological bridge to cross?
Depends on whom you ask.
The doctor is in
“I do believe there’s something there to be dealt with,” says Dr. John F. Murray, a noted sports performance and clinical psychologist based in Florida, referring to UNM’s three successive bowl losses.
“I would want to know more about the particulars about the program,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m some wheeler-dealer that can come in and fix it all. It sounds like (UNM’s) done a good job, improving the program year to year.”
The Lobos went 7-5 in 2004, marking their third straight year the program won at least seven games.
UNM enjoyed breakthrough wins each of those seasons (at Brigham Young in ’02, at Utah in ’03 and at home against Texas Tech in ’04).
Yet, the Lobos have not won a nonconference game outside New Mexico in Long’s tenure. They’re 0-14.
Opponents have outscored UNM by a combined 116-46 in the three bowls.
“It just seems like certain teams have a collective confidenceâ€? do you truly expect to win or notâ€? that carries a team over,” Murray says. “Those teams just seem to have a knack for the big game.
He says confidence is the biggest asset a team can have in playing a “big game.” The greatest source of confidence is past success.
A team without a tradition of successâ€? like UNMâ€? has to “fake it until you make it,” Murray says.
“I don’t think the psychological factor in this case is the primary influence,” Murray says. “I think the primary influence is talent. But I believe there’s something to be said for momentum. Think of how many games come down to a few critical plays. Even if the psychological factor is 10 percent or 15 percent, does that give you a little more strutâ€? not thinking but just doingâ€? and a little more focus at critical times?”
That’s just crazy
“I don’t think it’s psychological at all,” Long says. “I just don’t think we’ve played to our physical ability in any of the bowl games.”
Long says the long layoff between the regular-season finale and the bowl game hurts UNM, which has been a strong regular-season closer. The Lobos are 8-2 in November games from 2002-2004.
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is our talent level is very comparable to the people we play,” Long says. “If you go back through the league the last six years and see who has won the most close football games, it’s the University of New Mexico.
“That’s proof that our teams have played closer to their A-game than anybody else in this league has.”
Own worst enemy
The Lobos themselves seem to side with the good doctor.
“I think the biggest thing in keeping us from taking the next step is us,” junior offensive guard Robert Turner says. “We’ve been what’s held us back every year. I think for an inexperienced team, that’s the hardest thing to do, to not hold yourself backâ€? whether it’s emotions on the field that cause stupid penalties or a lack of knowledge of the game. Not to take anything away from our opponents, but I think our biggest competitor is going to be us.”
Adds senior running back Adrian Byrd, “It’s become psychological because we don’t want to finish second anymore. We don’t want to go to a bowl game and lose anymore.”
UNM’s 2005 hopes seem to hinge on both physical and mental aspects of the program.
The Lobos transformed their offense in the offseason from a power-based to a spread formation to improve a passing attack that ranked 114th of 117 Division I-A teams in ’04.
UNM is also anxious to find out how well senior tailback DonTrell Moore has recovered from offseason surgery after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Navy in the Emerald Bowl on Dec. 30.
Long says the offense is a strong point entering the seasonÃ¢â‚¬â€? which is a mouthful, considering UNM’s defense is one of only three Division I-A teams to finish in the top 30 in the country the past five seasons (the other two: Oklahoma and Texas).
“Going into the season, we’ve got concerns about experience at safety, linebacker and kicker,” Long says. “That’s not a lot of positions.”
The starting experience junior quarterback Kole McKamey gained last season is invaluable, Long says.
Obviously, UNM must avoid injuryâ€? the Lobos were 1-4 last season when either McKamey or Moore missed parts of or all of games because of injury.
The team has experience on its side, with 11 fifth-year seniors as starters. The fifth-year seniors are vying to play in their fourth consecutive bowl game, an unheard of opportunity in Lobos football lore.
“We have a lot of players at key positions that have been here for five years,” fifth-year senior linebacker Mike Mohoric says. “That’s the leadership this team needs to push through those times of adversity.”
The tools definitely seem in place for UNM to take that next stepâ€? physically, mentally … whatever.
After three years of “therapy,” the Lobos say the time is now.
“We see it coming,” senior cornerback Gabriel Fulbright says. “We’ve been so close the last three years, like we’re at the edge of the cliff, about to jump. But we ain’t caught flight yet.
“We know exactly what to do now. We’re ready.”