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Apr. 28—The day he was hired as the University of New Mexico’s newest football coach on Dec. 17, 2019, Danny Gonzales was welcomed to Loboland by the school’s outspoken baseball coach in the most Ray Birmingham-way possible.

“Welcome aboard, cowboy,” Birmingham said.

In less than half a year on the job, that cowboy has become the sheriff in these parts, the undeniable leader of an athletic department that has fallen in love with his rah-rah energy, his all-for-one, one-for-all mentality.

“You look at the passion Danny brings to this school and you can’t help but notice it,” said UNM soccer coach Heather Dyche after a news conference where Birmingham announced his retirement. “Ray has been that guy for so long, and now it’s Danny coming in here and walking that walk, you know? He’s a New Mexico guy who loves this state and loves the Lobos.”

Anyone who’s been around long enough can count on one hand the number of UNM coaches who’ve ascended to a role that’s larger than the program they represent. Most of them come from the basketball genre: Stormin’ Norman, pre-Baylor disgrace Dave Bliss and Mr. Breaks Your Heart Steve Alford.

Occasionally, the football guy comes along and does it: Dennis “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” Franchione and the lovable Rocky Long.

Aside from Long, none of them had the ties to New Mexico that Gonzales does. From the first moment he stepped back on campus as UNM’s football boss, he has ingratiated himself to Lobos fans by being the hometown kid who grew up bleeding cherry and silver. When he was introduced to fans at a Lobo basketball game, he spent the rest of the night walking up and down The Pit’s concrete steps shaking hands and asking people to get on board with him.

It was impossible for fans not to immediately love him. This was, after all, a guy who grew up in Albuquerque, walked onto the UNM football team, cut his teeth in the coaching business with the Lobos by working his way up from the ground floor and returning to town as the savior for a program that was in shambles after Bob Davie’s messy departure.

Like any new coach, he won the introductory presser by vowing to fight for his alma mater and support all the programs as if they were his own.

Yawn. We’d heard that so many times that it seemed as standard as the cherry blazer, the “happy to be here” rhetoric and the smiling handshakes with administrators.

Funny thing is, he meant it. Gonzales has become a fixture in his courtside seats for basketball games, is constantly around for soccer and baseball and volleyball, and was the first to greet new hoops coach Richard Pitino the second he hopped off the plane from Minneapolis. He is gracious with his time and loyal to the school that gave him his start.

Go ahead and track down a coach or administrator at UNM and ask about the impact Gonzales has had. Ask about the attitude he brings. Like a breath of fresh air, he has injected life and a sense of unity into a team and a department that sorely needed it.

“I think I’m leaving this place in better hands than it was when I got here,” Birmingham said, referring to Gonzales and UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez. “The people who sit in the biggest chairs, you need them to have your back. You need people to say what they’re going to do and then actually do what they say. Plus, Danny’s a New Mexico guy like me. He gets it. He knows the score here and he knows we can do this.”

In 17 months, Gonzales — with a 2-5 record that has somehow made him the greatest thing since sliced bread, thanks to the personality behind the man — is the undisputed leader of UNM athletics.

Attatboy, cowboy.

Will Webber is the sports editor for The New Mexican. Contact him at [email protected].