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New Mexico on verge of best start in 52 years

September 25, 1997

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ On the eve of the 1992 season, first-year New Mexico coach Dennis Franchione was riding in a car with two of his players when the conversation turned ugly.

``They were talking about the UNLV game the year before,″ Franchione said. ``How they were way ahead and still lost. As I listened to them, it was obvious they thought they were going to lose. It was kind of like, `We’ll find a way coach. We always have.‴

Franchione inherited a program that seemed to invent ways to lose during the five seasons before he was hired. The Lobos had won just nine games, lost 50 and never won two straight.

The coach has spent five years exorcising the losing mentality that had been associated with New Mexico football for more than three decades. He often refers to it as a ``marathon″ mission, which this season may finally have accomplished its goal.

New Mexico, idle this weekend, is 4-0 and within a win of matching its best start in 52 years. The Lobos’ next game, Oct. 4 against Western Athletic Conference rival SMU, is expected to be a sellout _ only the third in the 37-year history of 31,218-seat University Stadium.

``There’s no one here that has been on a 4-0 Lobo team,″ senior offensive lineman Shane Jaeger said. ``We realize that it’s something special, but we also know that it’s just four steps we’ve taken and there’s seven more to go.″

Senior linebacker Blake Irwin believes the main difference is the players’ attitude.

``When I got here there were a lot of players playing as individuals,″ he said. ``They brought everybody down. We don’t have anybody like that now.″

The winning streak has not come against the toughest competition. The Lobos have beaten New Mexico State and Texas-El Paso, among the weakest teams in major college football. The season opener, a 33-10 win, came against Northern Arizona, a Division I-AA school.

New Mexico scored a 25-22 road win last week against a solid Utah State team that had beaten Utah and battled then-nationally ranked Colorado State in a close loss. And unlike seasons past, the Lobos found a way to win.

They overcame five turnovers and played most of the game with a fourth-string tailback because the team’s top three backs were injured.

``Past teams, I don’t think would have been able to handle all the adversity we had,″ Franchione said. ``This team never got down, never stopped believing they were going to find a way to win.″

That’s a metamorphosis for the Lobos.

Since winning three straight WAC titles from 1962-64, New Mexico has had just seven winning seasons, two of them 6-5 records under Franchione in 1993 and last season. The Lobos haven’t been to a bowl game since 1961 (the Aviation Bowl) and even the 1982 team that went 10-1 under the late Joe Morrison failed to attract a bowl bid.

Over the years, blown leads and bad omens became the norm.

In 1989 the Lobos lost 35-33 at Tulsa after a potential game-winning field goal attempt hit the left upright, which turned out to be slightly bent inward. That same season, sophomore quarterback Jeremy Leach had the second-best passing day in NCAA history with 622 yards against Utah, but the Lobos still lost, 41-39.

The next season, the Lobos led Texas Tech 32-31 with less than two minutes remaining and had the Red Raiders’ offense facing a third-and-18 at their own 14-yard line. Disaster struck again. The Red Raiders completed back-to-back long passes to set up a game-winning 37-yard field goal.

That same year, New Mexico lost to Utah after blowing a 27-point third-quarter lead.

``We just found ways to lose every game,″ said former linebacker Scott Creagan, one of the players involved in that conversation with Franchione five years ago.

Leach, who now lives in California, said the teams he played on from 1988-91, had talent but succumbed to the legacy of the program.

``When you walked into that place, you felt jinxed,″ he said. ``You were fighting not only your opponent every week, but also the reputation that had been around for so long.″

Things were bad enough that when Franchione took over, he had trouble getting players to serve as captains. The first season, he says, lineman Klint Hall told him, ``Nobody wants to be captain because no one wants to answer to the media and the alums and the people downtown why we’re losing.″

The toughest part of this year’s schedule is still ahead. There’s Brigham Young, whom the Lobos have beaten only once in the last 25 years, and San Diego State, which has beaten New Mexico 13 straight times.

Franchione says the team relishes the winning streak, but with a sense of modesty.

``When you expect to win, you don’t celebrate quite as much because you do what you expected to do,″ he said. ``In the past, we almost surprised ourselves when we won.″

End Adv for release weekend editions, Sept. 27-28

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