Three Years, Six Points

The Aggies and Miners will meet on the field Saturday night for the 96th time and while the rivalry doesn’t exactly tickle the national fancy, it’s a huge deal for these two programs and fan bases. Through thick and thin, Aggies and Miners have viewed the game as a season defining encounter. Looking back, New Mexico State and UTEP engaged in three straight games that all went down to the wire and provided plenty of joy for the Miners and frustration for Aggies.

Over three years, six points separated the I-10 neighbors. As you’ll see the difference in winning and losing was often much closer than even the score indicated.

September 16, 1989

David Lee was all of 35 years of age when he left Arkansas to take the head coaching job at UTEP. He replaced Bob Stull who won seventeen games in his last two seasons in charge of the Miners. For Lee, UTEP was a dream destination and a fulfillment of a hope he’d had since his playing days at Vanderbilt, to be a college head coach. According to Lee, the Miners, coming off ten wins and a Liberty Bowl bid, weren’t a rebuild, they were a reload.

By the end of the 1989 season, he knew different. He also learned first hand the odd intensity of the Brass Spittoon game.

Miners and Aggies in ‘89.

New Mexico State head coach Mike Knoll, on the other hand, had seen enough. The former Miami Assistant was in his fourth and final year leading the Aggies. Budget concerns limited Knoll’s recruiting reach and he was given a tank of gas a week and most of his recruits were “scouted” and recruited over the phone, on reputation only. The approach had its effect as Knoll won four game and lost 40.

He’d arrived in Las Cruces the same year Stull arrived in El Paso and in a period that saw the Aggies win ten of previous thirteen vs. the Miners. Stull’s influence and the dial-a-recruit budget changed all that at the expense of Knull’s program and probably his sanity.

Two quarters into his fourth and final matchup with UTEP, Knoll needed a spark. His starting quarterback Phil Vinson started the game 1-7 for seven yards. Knoll turned to backup quarterback Phil Maloof.

Maloof came from the famous Maloof family from Northern New Mexico. In 1892 patriarch Joe Maloof opened a small general store. Over the next 100 years, that venture morphed and grew into a Coors distributorship, banks, hotels, telecom and casinos. By the late 90s the Maloof family acquired the Sacramento Kings and today own part of the Las Vegas NHL franchise.

Phil Maloof went on to become the youngest senator in New Mexico history, before going to work for the family businesses. His latest effort is a product called “Never Too Hungover.” On that September night in Las Cruces, Mike Knoll needed something to stop his headache so he turned to Phil. Maloof lacked that particular golden touch, he played one series, throwing a pick and Knoll, fresh out of future senators, grudgingly turned back to Vinson just before the end of the first half.

Vinson’s brief stay on the bench apparently taught him his lesson.

Over the final 31 minutes, Vinson threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns as he guided the Aggies in a no-huddle, no holds barred comeback. New Mexico State needed all of it, and then some. An Allen Washington toss sweep put UTEP up 29-7 with just 20 minutes to play. Rather than folding, and lets face it, given the Aggies recent history no one would’ve faulted them for doing so,Vinson found Bennie Thomas for 50 yards and a score in the final minute of the third quarter, cutting the lead to 29-13 after a failed two-point conversion.

With under seven minutes in the fourth, Vinson found Thomas again, this time standing all by himself for a 24-yard touchdown. The Aggies converted on the two-point try. The lead was now 29-22 and Vinson and his Aggie teammates weren’t done. With under a minute to play the Aggies drove deep into Miner territory and with one tick on the clock remaining, Vinson and Thomas connected for the third time to cut the UTEP lead to 29-27.

For Aggie fans the comeback was a sweet chaser to three bitter years of frustration. UTEP fans stood shocked in a “what the hell just happened” posture, a position that become the norm during Lee’s tenure. NMSU fans, those who’d stuck it out now, stood on their feet imploring the Aggies to complete the comeback and begging the Football Gods to make this time different. It wasn’t. On the two-point play, Vinson’s pass lofted over his receiver’s head and out of the end zone.

A beleaguered UTEP team received a last second pardon and David Lee had his first win. Afterward, Lee told reporters “I’m 36-year’s old. But right now I feel 96.“ Welcome to the rivalry David.

September 8, 1990

Anilia Perez wasn’t happy when David Lee inserted her quarterback son Michael into the first game of the 1990 season. Lee didn’t have a choice, his starter, Howard Gasser left the game with a knee injury against a tough BYU team led by future Heisman winner Ty Detmer. Gasser’s backup, Perez, was then a redshirt freshman, seeing his first action. Perez played admirably in the loss to the 16th ranked Cougars.

A week later Detmer and BYU beat defending National Champ Miami. The Miners on the other hand played their rivals from just over the Texas/New Mexico border.

Fullback Kevin Brogan breaks free in 1990.

New Mexico State had a new coach, former Stephen F. Austin and Angelo State head man Jim Hess. The administration gave him a contract for $75,000 a year and a new car. The Albuquerque Journal welcomed Hess with the headline “New Aggie Coach: Not Crazy.” The bar was low in Las Cruces.

The two rivals met again on the field. The Miners with Mike Perez starting in spite of the protests from his mother and the Aggies with a coach possessing at least a minimum of his mental faculties. Those details out of they way, toe met leather in the Sun Bowl on September 8, 1990.

Unlike 1989, the Aggies got out quickly against UTEP. Aggie receiver Richard Sanchez who caught seven passes in the ‘89 season, caught six in the first quarter alone. The Aggies jumped out, leading 10-0 before the Miners fired back and cut the lead to 17-14 at the half.

Miner fans were losing patience with Lee. The familiar dance steps of “one, two, three, punt” plagued Lee’s offense. According to accounts, Lee called the same wraparound draw seven times in the 1989 contest. Miner fans showed restraint by not running screaming into the Franklin Mountains. Then, two outlier plays happened, Perez found some magic with a long completion followed by an option play to Mike Simms who raced 55 yards to put UTEP up 20-17.

Of course the Aggies offered some help.

Early in the fourth, the Miners missed a 29 yard field goal, but an Aggie player allegedly punched a Miner, netting a personal foul penalty. UTEP’s offense had new life. A few plays later fullback Kevin Brogan scored another Miner touchdown to give the home team a 27-17 lead.

If UTEP learned anything from their trip to Las Cruces in 1989, it was that New Mexico State didn’t go down easy. New Mexico State scored a touchdown with just over six minutes to play that pulled the Aggies within three. UTEP avoided another last second barn burner by draining the remaining clock to assure the win. The win gave the Miners their fifth straight over the Aggies and sealed NMSU’s 19th straight loss.

September 14, 1991

By 1991, the bloom was gone from David Lee’s rose. His regime oversaw five wins in eighteen chances. At New Mexico State, things weren’t much better. The Aggies won one game in Jim Hess’ first season, that win was enough to break the nation’s longest losing streak, but not much else. Hess decided to flip his roster. The 1991 Aggies featured 16 new starters, mostly transfers from the JUCO ranks.

Hess also implemented a new strategy for 1991, “we’re just going to try and not beat ourselves this year. If another team wants to win, they’re the ones that’ll have to beat us.”

The new faces and new strategy welcomed UTEP to Las Cruces, with both teams ready to play sixty full minutes. Recent history required it.

The new look Aggies again jumped out quickly. Second-year quarterback David Chisum led his team on three textbook scoring drives, including a 68-yard campaign and another death march lasting seventeen plays and taking almost nine minutes off the second quarter clock. As a result, the Aggies dominated first-half play, leading 21-10 as the bands took the field.

If you needed a team to shoot itself in the foot, New Mexico State was often more than willing and usually brought the fire arm. 1990 was no different.

In the third quarter the Aggies once against dominated time of possession thanks to a 79-yard march, again taking over eight minutes. They reached the Miner one-yard line, technically the six inch line, with a chance to put UTEP in a bind 28-10. Jim Hess’ new strategy of letting the other team beat the Aggies met its first opposition. On fourth and goal, Chisum took the snap and slipped while handing off to Aggie fullback Jimmie Mitchell. The slip threw the timing off and UTEP pounced, stopping Mitchell short.

After the fourth-down failure, the Aggie defense rallied and got the ball back, but Chisum promptly fumbled deep in NMSU territory. The Miners turned that into six points five plays later but failed to convert the two-point play and trailed 21-16.

New Mexico State kept threatening into the fourth, engineering another meticulous drive from their eleven-yard line to UTEP’s twelve. With a chance to make it an eight-point game, Hess’ Aggies, again, became their own worst enemy, missing a chip shot field goal.

The 14-point favorite Miners started playing like it. UTEP took over with seven minutes to play, down 21-16, and converted a critical fourth and one, moving into Aggie territory. Then with 2:54 to play, UTEP employed a tactic that the 30,000 plus fans crammed into Aggie Memorial Stadium hadn’t witnessed all night, and something Miner fans would see only on fleeting occasions during David Lee’s four-plus seasons in charge, they threw deep.

Mike Perez dropped back and saw Ansel Littlejohn two steps ahead of any Aggie defender. Perez let fly, and Littlejohn ran under it and streaked into the end zone for the winning score.

After the game Hess commented on his teams progress, “we’re a lot better than we were except we’re still a million miles away.” Oddly, Miner fans probably saw themselves further away after three years of David Lee.

In three years UTEP won three games over their I-10 rivals by a combined score of 78-72. Three wins, six points. In 1992, Hess’ Aggies exacted some level of revenge, winning in UTEP by six points in a game that must’ve felt like a blowout.

The Aggies and Miners renew hostilities Saturday at 6:30 in the Sun Bowl.

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