Jim Hess, the football coach at New Mexico State, is a good ol' boy with a bad ol' team. He knew this going in. Hess inherited a program then in the throes of a 17-game losing streak and now in the throes of a 27-game losing streak.
"I'm only taking credit for 10 of 'em," Hess said.
Hess never made any pretense about turning Aggie football around overnight. Hours after he first set boot in Las Cruces, just off the plane from Stephen F. Austin State, Hess opened his first news conference by introducing himself as the new coach of "the worst football team in the country."
He said, "It would be foolish to raise expectations around here."
He said he could see no difference in making the move from Division I-AA football to Division I-A.
"What difference?" Hess said. "I don't have as many good players now as I did in Division I-AA."
If nothing else, Hess has been true to his word. Right now, New Mexico State has the worst team in the country, at least in Division I-A, at least in the national polls. The 0-10 Aggies are ranked 106th out of 106, but this week, after 2 1/2 years in the bunker, they have spotted hope on the horizon.
The Aggies have seen the enemy, and its name is Cal State Fullerton, 1-10 and ranked 105th in the nation.
Saturday's game at the aptly named Aggie Memorial Stadium will be a breakthrough. College football still has no viable system to determine its true champion, but this year, it has stumbled into a way to determine who's the worst.
Head to head, guano y guano-- that's the only way to decide it.
Excitement is high in Las Cruces, as high as excitement ever gets in Las Cruces. (There's been kind of a lull since the trial of Billy The Kid.) A crowd of 15,000 is expected Saturday. There will whooping and hollering and quite possibly, the way Fullerton plays defense, history.
New Mexico State can move the football. Quarterback David Chisum, late of Sunny Hills High School and Fullerton College, has thrown for 1,989 yards, 11 touchdowns and is 15 completions shy of the school's single-season record. Fullback Jimmie Mitchell has rushed for 684 yards and a 4.7 average. Wide receiver Alvin Warren has caught 46 passes and scored five touchdowns.
The Aggies also have that flea, Dat Ly, the diminutive man who kicks field goals from long distances. Ly was born in South Vietnam on Dec. 1, 1966, and left on April 29, 1975--the day Saigon fell. Now a senior, Ly is nine for 11 on field-goal tries this season--perfect inside the 50--and needs one more to break the school's career record.
New Mexico State's problems come when the Aggies turn the football over or don't protect Chisum's back or don't do much of anything when the other team has the ball.
The Aggies have a turnover ratio of minus-21 and have allowed 62, 55 and 56 points in three of their past four games. But New Mexico State has been at its worst when it tries to pass block.
The Chisum trail has been a painful one, lined with an insane, inhumane 47 sacks. Paul Schulte, Fullerton's shellshocked quarterback, is as comfy as Joe Montana by comparison.
"David Chisum ought to be honored as a veteran of World War III," Hess said, "because I don't think I've ever had a player that has taken the physical abuse and whipping he has. Never had one like that who is still walking.
"I've had some that have been hit hard and were gone, but he's still out there. He did break his wrist and bummed his knee up, but in the 11th ballgame, it is amazing that he is still standing."
The definitive snapshot of Chisum's season came after one plastering during a 55-10 loss at Utah State.
"Chisum came off the field, and he was peeking out of his ear hole," Hess recalls. "He looked like Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon, just after he blew himself up again."
Hess is pained, too, when he looks at the first half of New Mexico State's season and sees the near-misses: 27-24 at UTEP, 31-27 at Long Beach, 24-20 against Nevada Las Vegas.
"I think that if we had done a better job of coaching," Hess said, " . . . we could've won three or four ballgames. There was enough closeness in there that if we had been a little better prepared or made a play here or there, we would've been all right.
"As I look back on it, I see things we could've done different and things we could've done better as coaches."
It's been a rough year all around. Hess is a funny guy, but his weekly radio talk show has become a breeding farm for unintentional laughs. Every Wednesday, The Jim Hess Show airs from Eddie's Bar and Grill, and the idea is for Hess to field phone calls from listeners. But KOBE-FM is a low-budget operation--even for Las Cruces--and sometimes Hess gets the news feed instead of the question about his linebackers.
"Coach, can you hear the question?"
"No, but I just heard something about Saddam Hussein."
Given the chance, Hess sends out no mixed signals. He recognized the haul involved when he accepted the New Mexico State job. He knew this program had nowhere to go but up. That's why he hitched up in the first place.
Before the season, Hess said he came to Las Cruces "to try to do something no one else has done. If I do it, I'm a legend. If I don't, I'll retire, or they'll retire me."
Jim Hess is no legend yet. But if he wins Saturday, he may get his own statue.