UTSA running backs coach Polo Gutierrez has spent this week looking ahead to the Roadrunners' Western Athletic Conference opener against New Mexico State on Saturday.
But truth be told, Gutierrez also has reminisced a little. Considering how many times he's been asked how he feels about UTSA playing such a historic game against his alma mater, Gutierrez hasn't had much choice but to reflect on his career with the Aggies.
Born in Laredo but raised in Corpus Christi, Leopoldo "Polo" Gutierrez was a three-year starting offensive lineman at NM State from 2006-08 after playing nose guard on defense as a freshman in 2005.
The Roadrunners (4-0) and Aggies (1-3) meet at 7 p.m. Saturday at Aggie Memorial Stadium in Las Cruces, N.M.
"It's our first WAC game," Gutierrez said. "Of course, it's special because we are going back to my alma mater."
Gutierrez said he took his share of ribbing from UTSA's running backs this week, especially when he showed up for the first day of practice with his hair freshly cut.
"They all tell me, 'You got a short, high and tight haircut. Coach is all business this week,'" Gutierrez said, chuckling. "They understand how important the game is."
NM State hasn't gone to bowl since 1960
UTSA heads into its league opener brimming with confidence after rolling to a 56-3 rout of Division II Northwestern Oklahoma State last Saturday. New Mexico beat New Mexico State 27-14 a few hours later, handing the Aggies their third consecutive loss.
Winning seasons have been few and far between for NM State, which hasn't been to a bowl since 1960. The bowl drought is the longest among teams in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly Division I-A.
The Aggies have recorded only four winning seasons since 1967, when they finished 7-2-1 under former Trinity coach Warren Woodson.
A 2005 Corpus Christi Carroll graduate, Gutierrez played on NM State teams that went a combined 11-38 under San Antonio native Hal Mumme. The Aggies were 0-12 in Gutierrez's freshman year and never won more than four games in one season during his career.
Of course, none of that will matter when NM State plays UTSA. The Aggies' losing record notwithstanding, the Roadrunners know they will face a challenge Saturday night.
On the other hand, NM State knows its season could be lost if it falls to UTSA, which was picked to finish last in the WAC.
"All the pressure's on them," Gutierrez said. "Their coach (DeWayne Walker) said, 'We have a chance to be 2-3 after this week.' They think it's a game they can win. We know we can win it, but we have to play mistake-free football. These guys (Aggies) play really tough.
"But our guys, they don't really look at film and think that guys are better than them. I don't know if it's just the young mentality, but they don't know any better. They think they can beat anybody. We could march USC in there and they still would think they could beat them."
Gutierrez keeps in touch with college coach
Gutierrez, 25, was assistant strength and conditioning coach at NM State in 2009 before joining Coker's staff later that year as a volunteer coach.
Gutierrez worked as a volunteer for about six months before he became a graduate assistant, and was promoted to a full-time position as running backs coach in December 2010.
"It's been a blessing," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said he talks with Mumme, now head coach at McMurry in Abilene, by phone about once a month.
"He gives me a lot of pointers," Gutierrez said. "He's even called me and wished me good luck on this one."
Gutierrez said Mumme and Coker have been his mentors and have been "tremendous" in helping him develop as a coach.
Gutierrez is also a good friend of former NM State standout quarterback Charley Johnson, who went on to play in the NFL and retired this year as a professor of chemical engineering at his alma mater.
Johnson, who earned Sun Bowl MVP honors in 1959 and 1960, is the only player in the history of the Aggies' football program who has had his number retired. He was the quarterback of the last NM State team to play in a bowl game.
"He can't make the game because his daughter is sick with cancer, but he was going to be on our sidelines," Gutierrez said. "He's a good fan of ours and it was going to be nice support for him to be there."
Roadrunners had to grow up quickly
UTSA is making the transition to the FBS this season after finishing its inaugural season 4-6 last year. The Roadrunners, who played as an independent in the FCS (formerly I-AA) last season, will move to Conference USA next year.
Gutierrez has been involved with UTSA football from nearly the beginning, helping Coker run football camps for kids and tryouts for prospective players.
"From where they were two years ago to where they are now is night and day," Gutierrez said, referring to UTSA's players. "We had a lot of growing up to do and we had to do it very fast. That was the main thing.
"It went from thinking we were going to be D-I, Double-A, and eventually D-I when these guys were seniors to all of sudden, you're in the WAC. I tell the guys that I played in the WAC and I know what it's about. The WAC is still extremely competitive."
That said, Gutierrez said the Roadrunners have players who can "easily compete in this league."
While UTSA won't be eligible for a bowl until 2014, Gutierrez said the Roadrunners don't lack for incentive.
"More than anything, what I tell these guys is, 'What are you competing for this year? Are you competing for a bowl game? No. What you're competing for is a conference championship ring,'" Gutierrez said. "That's what you can have this year. If you get in there and do what's right, you can win the WAC and be able to win the last WAC championship in history."
The WAC announced in August that it will drop football after this season.
When WAC football passes into history, Gutierrez still will have his memories of the league.
And so will UTSA.