Samuel in the spotlight in 2004

After a brief taste of success at one of the nation's traditionally dismal football programs, the college football world began asking Tony Samuel when he was leaving New Mexico State.<P>

Samuel began his third season at NMSU 3-0, including a 73-7 blowout of New Mexico Highlands, a road win over the rival University of New Mexico Lobos and the cherry on top was a 35-7 blowout of nationally-ranked Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

The ASU victory brought with it national attention, and started the barrage of questions. He was a hot commodity and was seemingly on the next bus out of town to move up the college football ranks.

Now, five years later, Samuel heads into the final year of his contract with a 29-51 career record at NMSU and after a disappointing 3-9 showing in 2003, the same questions are being asked of Samuel. Only now, people are wondering if the former Nebraska assistant and player will be forced out of Las Cruces if the Aggies don't produce a winner in 2004.

Brian Faison, NMSU director of athletics, says he and Samuel won't discuss the contract until after the season. Samuel's players, however, are eager to end any speculation as to whether their coach should return.

"Everybody's aware of it for sure," said junior free safety Matt Griebel, "and I think you can feel the pressure from the coaches point of view. ... Nobody wants to go through a coaching change. This is a real good coaching staff and I want make sure they're still around next year. ... We'll win this year, I know we will, then this won't be an issue."

Griebel and fellow upper classman senior Steve Subia — preseason All-American at right guard — say that despite the contract situation, the players have the same goal this year as they have had in the past: Win the Sun Belt Conference.

"We've got to make a name for ourselves nationwide," Subia said. "The way we can do that is get to a bowl game, maybe upset Arkansas." As for the coaches, if they're feeling any extra pressure to win this year, they aren't showing it.

"Look at the business I'm in," Samuel said. "Pressure is how you define it. ... I'm still going into every year wanting to go undefeated and trying to prepare our guys to win games. I don't think anything has changed. If there's pressure, that's something you guys (the media) are saying. ... It's something I can't control."

Samuel and his staff, which after seven years at NMSU still has a predominantly Nebraska Cornhusker look to it, want to win, but realize that isn't always enough in the fickle business of college football.

After a 9-3 season in Lincoln, Neb., long-time Cornhusker coach and assistant before that, Frank Solich was fired and replaced by ex-Raiders head coach Bill Callahan.

"We had good friends of ours get fired after going 9-3 (last season)," said NMSU offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski, who starred at quarterback for Nebraska in the late 1980's. "It's just the nature of the business and I try not to think about it."

Winning the Sun Belt, according to Gdowski, has "been the goal since the beginning. Get to a bowl game and win a championship." Though he doesn't anticipate discussing a new contract with Samuel until after the season, Faison said he thinks the current staff has, "done a tremendous job since they got here. We're certainly more competitive than we were in previous years."

Faison acknowledged winning is a large factor in coaching, but also pointed out that Samuel has brought a commitment to academic excellence for his players.

Samuel, who in 1999 said had no plans to leave NMSU after his first taste of success, echoed his long-term commitment to the program at the team's annual media day on Thursday.

"The idea was to turn this into a top program in the country, that hasn't changed," Samuel said. "I said this is a gold mine and it is." Though the program has not yet met expectations under Samuel in some regards — they have not yet won a conference championship — they have been in contention with their fellow Sun Belt teams each year. With the exception of Larry Blakeney at Troy (Ala.) — a school entering their first year in the Sun Belt — there isn't one head coach in the conference that has a winning record at their current school. Samuel is the first coach at NMSU since 1967 (Warren Woodson) to post two winning seasons for the Aggies.

Samuel knows the questions might follow him throughout the year about his future at NMSU. He's heard them before, but without a winning season in 2004, it could be the last time he hears the questions in Las Cruces.

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