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MOMENTS, MEMORIES and MADNESS with STEVE CAMERON: Sometimes, despite the code, you just fall in love with a team you cover

| August 16, 2020 1:02 AM

It’s the rule in our profession…

Be objective.

Yes, I abide by that code — but I’ll say right up front here that I have my own version of objectivity.

I believe in being honest, and only writing what is true.

However…

If you’re regularly covering a sports team — let’s say Gonzaga basketball — you can be honest, but it’s sometimes impossible to be objective.

Two reasons…

First, you’re spending an incredible amount of time with that group of coaches and players, so it’s simply human nature that your working relationship will develop, in some cases, into friendship.

Second, you’re writing (almost exclusively) for fans of the team you’re covering.

If it’s the Zags, those readers are seeing games — and results — through Gonzaga-tinted glasses.

My point…

We’re honest, but we can really care.

SOMETIMES a team, a club, a school, some coaches or maybe a particular group of players will sneak up on you.

Over the years, it can happen, even if the situation doesn’t give you a hint.

You sure aren’t planning to have your heart stolen.

And yet…

The best example I can share occurred in 1982, when I spent one — and only one — season covering New Mexico football for the Albuquerque Tribune.

Joe Morrison, the onetime Giants running back, was in his third year coaching UNM, and he’d posted records of 4-7 and 4-7-1.

Still, both Morrison and his wild-and-wooly defensive coordinator, Joe Lee Dunn, promised me after an intra-squad scrimmage up in Santa Fe that this year’s bunch would be a lot of fun.

Now that was…

A massive understatement.

For a start, it was a goofy team.

New Mexico had no secrets from opponents that year.

They punched you in the mouth on offense, controlling things with a bruising running game — and on defense, Dunn had plenty of speed and big hitters who often seemed to prowl anywhere they pleased.

The schedule did them no favors, however, with a conference opener at Wyoming to start the season.

TO SPICE things up, the Wyoming players and fans were still steaming about a play in the game between these teams the previous year.

New Mexico safety Ray Hornfeck had gone low tackling someone on a reverse and left the runner with a broken leg.

When we arrived in Laramie, the chalkboard in the Lobos’ locker room was empty except for a message one of the Cowboys had left…

“HORNFECK DIES!”

Except, surprisingly, UNM controlled the game from start to finish, totally bullying Wyoming in a 41-20 victory.

I was amazed, actually.

These guys looked pretty good.

Oh, and as the New Mexico players filed back into the locker room after the game, they were greeted by a single message on that same chalkboard…

“HORNFECK LIVES!”

It was funny as hell, and typical of what was to come.

THE SEASON was spectacular, and it was the defense that made things exciting.

Dunn was later credited with inventing a 3-3-5 alignment that a lot of schools copied, but the truth is that he tried everything.

There were plays where all 11 Lobo defenders where stretched out across the line of scrimmage.

Dunn gave middle linebacker Johnny Jackson (later the 1982 WAC defensive player of the year) free rein to blitz at any time and through any gap.

When a picture of him hollering at Jackson and pointing to his head was published, I asked Joe Lee what it meant.

“It’s the sign to just go dad-gum crazy,” he replied.

New Mexico won its first four games, and geared up for perennial power BYU at University Stadium.

UNM has historically struggled to draw big crowds, but the city was pumped for this one, and a sellout crowd of 30,002 was howling.

THE LOBOS, though, got blown away.

Except, I mean that literally.

They controlled the ball and the clock, pushed BYU around and led 12-7 at halftime.

But it was a day of screaming wind, the Cougars had it at their backs in the third quarter, and it was a nightmare.

There was a shanked punt into the wind, intentional grounding in the end zone, every terrible thing you can imagine when a team can’t out of jail.

Did I mention that the BYU quarterback was Steve Young?

The Lobos had kept him pretty quiet — UNM had a terrific secondary — but with countless chances in the third quarter, Young hit a couple of TD passes and BYU scored again after a turnover.

Hideous.

Just another loss to BYU, this one 40-12 despite New Mexico actually winning the line of scrimmage more often than not.

The Lobos had 23 first downs to 22 for BYU, ran 92 plays to 62 for the Cougs, and basically evened the total yardage (411-392 for BYU).

Morrison grabbed me in the stadium tunnel right after the game.

His face was red and you could see the veins in his neck.

“If we played that team again next week, we’d beat them,” said the normally reserved Morrison.

“I’ll tell you something else, too. The fans here have suffered a lot, and they’ll probably get down now — but I’m telling you, we won’t lose again.”

GOOD GRIEF.

With six games left, three on the road, the Lobos faced a heck of a challenge.

But that incredible, resilient team did it – they ran the table to finish 10-1, and by then I was in love with the whole bunch.

They had to rally to win at San Diego State the week after BYU, and QB David Osborn — who was admittedly an iffy passer — heaved a 49-yard touchdown pass on the last play to steal a win at North Texas.

They fell behind Colorado State at home, but the defense roared in to take command, and on the final Saturday — the only night game of the year, for which extra lights were added for TV — the Lobos smoked Hawaii 41-17 to close out the best season in New Mexico football history.

I remember congratulating Morrison and Dunn after the Hawaii game, and there was laughter all around.

I’d never seen a team like those Lobos before, and I’ve never seen one since.

There was excitement, naturally, waiting for a bowl bid — what would be New Mexico’s first postseason trip since the 1947 Harbor Bowl.

THE STATS say that New Mexico had the sixth-best record in all of Division I, and only two teams scored more points.

So, where were they headed?

Players and coaches gathered at the stadium, waiting for word, then one bowl matchup after another was announced — with no mention of New Mexico.

Finally, it came down to the Independence Bowl, which had an open spot.

The kids were ready. They didn’t care what bowl.

But talk about a kick in the teeth…

The suits who ran the Independence Bowl somehow chose Air Force, a four-loss team that New Mexico had drilled by two touchdowns — at the Academy.

It felt SO unfair.

Players cried, and I damn near did the same.

“Pardnah, we just got screwed,” said Joe Lee Dunn.

There I was, a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, planning a return to the Bay Area.

I’d arrived with no particular interest in the team, the program, any of it.

And I felt the hurt just like everybody else.

Big time.

Believe me, it can happen.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball, once per month during the offseason.