ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Bob Davie became New Mexico's head coach in 2011, he bluntly said he'd make no promises. The Lobos had lost 35 of their past 38 games and the previous coach had been fired following a slew of embarrassing off-field problems.
Davie only said he would seek to "stabilize this program."
Four years after taking over the embattled football program, and 14 years since getting ousted himself as Notre Dame's head coach, the 61-year-old Davie has the Lobos playing in their first bowl game in nearly a decade. New Mexico (7-5), will meet Arizona (6-6) in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday after a surprisingly solid season that saw the Lobos shock Boise State and Mountain West Mountain Division champion Air Force.
Davie succeeded Lou Holtz at Notre Dame in 1997 and compiled a 35-25 record over five years. He was fired after the 2001 season with a 5-6 record.
Davie said his return to the college postseason, his first since 2000, is "absolutely not" about redemption. It's about rebuilding a program that still needs more work with a bowl appearance as a first step, he said.
"The football gods smiled on us at times this year. I don't deny that," Davie said. "This will only be important to us if we take advantage of this and build on this. If we don't, we are going to be back where we were."
In a city where college basketball reigns supreme, and where New Mexico's upset of Boise State competed for attention on the same night with Albuquerque hometown hero Holly Holm's defeat of Ronda Rousey for the UFC women's bantamweight championship, the Lobos football team struggled for a while to get the public's attention.
Yet, after becoming bowl eligible and accepting a bid to the hometown New Mexico Bowl, enthusiasm for the Lobos is now apparent. Local businesses are hanging Lobos posters. Fans are talking about the matchup at cafes. Local radio talk shows speculate whether the Lobos have one last surprise left in them.
The new-and-improved Lobos also have brought attention to Davie and his efforts to bring back a program that had been drawing record-low attendance before he came to town.
"Bob Davie has done one of the best coaching jobs in the country," said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, who considers Davie a friend.
Davie's last appearance in a bowl game came as Notre Dame's head coach and ended in a 41-9 loss to Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. A year later, he was gone. He took a job as an analyst with ESPN until he returned to coaching with the Lobos.
Senior tight end Reece White said none of that played into his decision to come to New Mexico when Davie worked to recruit him. "I looked at the character of the person and I knew he was the real deal," White said. "He convinced us to buy in and he won us over."
White said his teammates want to win the Lobos' first bowl game since 2007 for each other but they would also love to notch a victory for Davie. "He has really turned this program around," White said.
To beat Arizona, New Mexico will have to play mistake-free football with its triple option formation, Davie said. The Lobos also will have to slow down Arizona's up-tempo air attack.
"We can't give up any big plays," Davie said after Tuesday's practice.
When a reporter pointed out that the defense had shown improvement this season, Davie was unapologetic. "We have looked better," Davie said. "Because in the past we just weren't very good."
This article was written by Russell Contreras from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.