NMSU athletics riding high as Mario Moccia enters Year 4

Hiring men's basketball coach Chris Jans, right, was among the highlights for NMSU athletics director Mario Moccia, ...more
Hiring men's basketball coach Chris Jans, right, was among the highlights for NMSU athletics director Mario Moccia, left, in 2017.
Robin Zielinski / Sun-News

LAS CRUCES — New Mexico State Athletics Director Mario Moccia enters his fourth year of a five-year contract with the athletics department trending up. 

The Aggies football team ended the longest bowl drought in the country last month, winning the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Moccia has had a good run of hiring men's basketball coaches with Paul Weir and Chris Jans, whose team is off to a 14-3 start this season. 

Moccia has balanced a tight budget during each of his three years in Las Cruces, as finances have been, and will continue to be a challenge from his chair. He is still working on his first contract, which expires December 31, 2019. Moccia's contract includes a salary of $240,000, but if the university terminates the contract without cause at any time, it would owe Moccia for one year at his $240,000 annual salary. 

Moccia said his immediate priority is maximizing the football team's Arizona Bowl championship. He expects season ticket renewals to be announced next week. Filling Aggie Memorial Stadium to a respectable level for next season's five home games would solve some problems. 

According to New Mexico State, the school sold 4,308 non-Learfield tickets for the Aggies' well-attended season finale against South Alabama on Dec. 2 and made $28,324 with an average cost of $6.57 per ticket. According to the school's drop count for the game, there were 8,499 non-season ticket holders at the game, which would yield $55,838 per game in single game ticket sales if the same crowd shows up for each game next season with single-game tickets between $5-$15.

We spoke with Moccia about his goals and challenges for the coming year:



Las Cruces Sun-News: What surprised you the most about Las Cruces and its support for the football team in the last two months of the season?


Mario Moccia: Just an unbelievable outpouring of humanity. Historically, as fans know, November and December games are, to say poorly attended would be kind, and we had what looked like 20,000 people at the South Alabama game. Group of 5 games late in the year just suffer from poor attendance, but ours was phenomenal and I think the crowd pushed us over the hump. Tucson just ratcheted it up even further. I never imagined having that kind of crowd. I was looking at pictures and I Tweeted a picture of the whole grandstands and it got over 600 retweets. That was a 56,000 seat stadium that we completely took over the pressbox side and some of both end zones. I thought we would have 12-13,000 fans, I never realized we would have potentially 20-25,000. It was amazing and it was the highest attended Group of 5 bowl game, which I saw the Arizona Bowl put out. 


LCSN: Is it important to get season ticket renewals out for football ASAP?


MM: It is important and they will be out hopefully by the end of this week, if not beginning of next week. We have set the prices (season tickets will range from $60 to $150, which includes a $10 increase for three price points. The university also eliminated the $55 season tickets price point. Those upper bowl sections on the east side of the stadium will cost $70). There will be a slight increase, but we are including, for any football season ticket renewals or new purchases will receive a replica bowl ring. We gave out a ring for basketball, and that was a legit ring. We feel it's a sought-after item. We felt it necessary to hold the prices because with one year of success you can't do anything crazy, but we wanted to offer a really nice gift as an incentive for people to renew. 

LCSN: What is the financial impact for the bowl game that you can disclose right now?


MM: I think we have a better handle from the revenue side rather than the expense side because hotel bills, charter companies are still coming in and we are auditing that too. From a revenue standpoint, we had $150,000 for a travel stipend from the Sun Belt, we got $250,000 for a bowl game from the conference and another $33,000 from the Sun Belt because the Arizona Bowl was played so late in the season and then splitting of the ticket revenue. We were not only able to split half of the sales with the Sun Belt, but we were able to negotiate with the Arizona Bowl, anything we sold on top of the 5,000 tickets we received from the Sun Belt, we would keep 50 percent of that as well. We ended up at 6,959 from a total sales standpoint. Our ticket sales kept revenue around $160,000. Our Learfield and Under Armour contract, we got $5,000 each for a Group of 5 bowl game. That was other ancillary revenue that is being brought in. 

"For costs, obviously whenever you get on an airplane, your costs increase. We are still waiting for the numbers to come in but the ability to bus somewhere was huge. Here, that is a big issue with what are our perceived negatives. We have to fly everywhere we go.

LCSN: What was your initial reaction to Stan Fulton's passing this week and can you speak to the potential financial impact to the institution? 


MM: I'll start out by saying I was sad to hear the news. One of my regrets was I didn't have the chance to meet Stan Fulton face to face and thank him for what he has done for the university, but specifically intercollegiate athletics. I had heard in his lifetime, he had given upwards of $17 million to the institution. I think you can look around and a lot of that has gone to our athletics program. Whether it's the Fulton Athletic Center, the synthetic grass, Club 27, monies to retain coaches (Marvin Menzies and Reggie Theus). What his private giving has done is astronomical. I couldn't speak to what happens now. That is a university issue but i think the focus now should be Stan's life and what he meant to this place.

LCSN: How is ticket sales tracking now that football season is completed and we are about halfway through men's basketball season? 


MM: We are up. We budget every single game, whether it's a men's basketball game, women's basketball game. ... As of right now, it looks like we are plus $34,500 on our ticket budget. Last year, we missed the budget by half of a percentage point. We felt good that we had realistic projections. We realistically projected again this year and right now we are trending up.

LCSN: Do you plan to do a Pack the Pan Am men's basketball promotion this year?


MM: Right now we do on Feb. 10 against Grand Canyon. There will be other tickets available for group prices in the upper bowl, but all of the upper bowl prices will be $5 (for groups of 20 tickets or more) with the goal being to try to sell out every ticket in the upper bowl. It's a marquee game. In the past, the Pack the Pan Am has been against a traditional non-power team. Grand Canyon is one of the better teams in the league and in the west and whenever we go there, they are completely sold out. It would be nice to play in front of a sold-out home crowd against them. 

LCSN: This is something that you referred to in the past, but how realistic is re-structuring the debt and what would that look like?


MM: That is a university and regents decision. Ever since I was here and long before I got here, we have been paying back the debt. We are prepared to pay the amount this year. We know we have three remaining payments after this fiscal year.

We could look at if we expanded the debt from a three-year to a six-year payback and see how much that would free up and then what you would do with these monies. That is what we are formulating right now in the event that we are allowed to expand the debt. 

I will also say that we need to get this thing paid off eventually. I understand there are some short-term things that could help us significantly but for the athletic program, for the institution, it sure would be a wonderful day when there is not a debt hanging over the athletic department's head. 

LSCN: Chris Jans appears to be a good hire. Based on recent history, is there concern there that if he is too good, you would lose another basketball coach?


MM: You hire people and you hope and expect them to be a good coach. I can't put words in Chris' mouth, but if you told me we would be 14-3 with sweeping UNM and UTEP and wins over Davidson and Miami, I would not have believed you. So Chris has exceeded expectations. 

I've hired over 20 head coaches since I've been an athletic director for almost 12 years. There is always an unknown factor, but I thought Chris was one of the more sure bets. I had seen him in person, I saw what they did at Wichita State after what they inherited. He had been a head coach. He had that junior college blue collar background. He had demonstrated success at Bowling Green. I didn't realize the players would embrace it so quickly and we would have such a high level of success. There is always a concern with what you're paying and how well you're doing, he's going to be a hot commodity. Now he is a proven winner twice. 

The season still has to finish, It's something Chris and I talk about. It would be nice if the athletic program could make an effort at keeping Coach Jans. You've had Marvin Menzies, Paul Weir and now Chris. It is not healthy for the program to keep changing coaches year after year. I think it's incumbent on the athletic administration to really look at the budget and what can be done to keep successful coaches, especially in the sport of men's basketball.

LCSN: You were contacted by New Mexico (for the athletics director position). I think everyone would agree you have done a good job in your three years here. Has that led to any conversations about restructuring or extending your contract, which has two years remaining. 


MM: Not much. Chancellor (Garrey) Carruthers has said on numerous occasions on numerous different positions, that he thinks that big decisions should be left to the next incoming person, which is understandable. 

We want stability in our coaches, stability in our budgets. I would be no different. (UNM athletics director) Eddie Nuñez (five-year, $300,00 salary with a $150,000 buyout for the remaining term of the entire contract) and (UTEP AD) Jim Senter, I see what their long term contracts are. I think stability is a big deal, especially when you have a young family. In the volatile world of intercollegiate athletics, we are up at the moment, but you try to remain even keel because something could be right around the corner. 

Certainly, I would love to have as long term a contract as possible.

LCSN: What would you like to see accomplished in the coming year from an administrative standpoint?


MM: From a staffing standpoint, we only have two people in our academic area and when I walked in, we had four. We have had tremendous success from an academic  standpoint with 25 consecutive semesters of our student athletes averaging over a 3.0 grade point average. To evaluate transcripts, to monitor the (Academic Progress Rate), to offer proper tutorial services, we used to have four full timers. I think that is critical to the core of what we are doing. 

We have been without Steve Macy (in 2015) and our head marketing position for quite some time. It's kind of like the new normal now with two people. You want to be able to maximize when you go to a bowl game and win it and when you are 14-3 in basketball, you just can't do everything you want to. I think that position we would like to take a look at again. 

The Senior Women's Administrator position, since Maria Roth left (2013), that has been jumped around. We are very fortunate that Dr. Renee Scott has stepped into that role but her primary mission is the President of Doña Ana Community College. 

LCSN: What qualities would you like to see from the next president from an athletics standpoint? 


MM: I would start by thanking (current NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers) for giving me an opportunity. I know there were a lot of qualified candidates. We often focus on the challenges here, but it's been a great ride for three years and I love a challenge. 

I'm not on any committee or anything but I just hope that the decision makers, whether regents or members of the search committee, a lot of them were in Tucson and that is the goal of the athletic program. It's two-fold. It's educating student athletes and making sure they are taking meaningful courses and matriculating toward graduation. 

The other thing is to shine a positive lens on the institution through athletics. I went to Atlanta for some College Football Playoff meetings for the day the day before the championship game. I introduced myself to (ESPN broadcaster) Chris Fowler and he said that (NMSU's bowl victory) was an awesome national story and he's calling the championship game the next day. ... Everyone in our industry was tuned into that fact. I would hope that the powers that be would say, 'Hey, this is what athletics can do for an institution.' "

Sports Editor Jason Groves can be reached at 575-541-5459 or jgroves@lcsun-news.com. Follow him on Twitter @jpgroves.









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