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Stevens: Lobos’ Unheralded Heroes

Stevens: Lobos’ Unheralded Heroes

Breaking news: Richard Stevens writes something nice about the Lobos.

BY RICHARD STEVENS

Richard StevensNew Mexico’s Joe Franklin – track coach extraordinaire – has long joked that he is a glorified bus driver. He says he drives his Lobo teams to various meets, points them in the right direction and watches them run.

Yeah, and John Wooden used to just roll out the basketballs at UCLA.

If you want to swallow Joe’s line about driving the bus, then Joe just might be driving his New Mexico Lobos’ women’s cross country team to a national championship. In a way, it would be UNM’s first and only major NCAA title. Oh, the Lobo ski team has a national title to its credit, but that’s comparing apples to green chile.

The NCAA ski teams are almost glorified club teams. There are maybe 10 schools coast-to coast that put enough money into a ski program to challenge for a national title, and that’s pretty much the national field every year. Middlebury College finished eighth at the 2015 NCAA ski meet. St. Scholastica was top 25. Those sound like teams Craig Neal might schedule in basketball.

Franklin’s runners have to beat everyone – Stanford to Harvard, Michigan to Texas, and everybody in between.

In a way, it’s amazing that Franklin’s women’s cross country team is ranked No. 1 heading into the postseason. These Lobos are rated ahead of programs such as Michigan, Colorado, Arkansas, Oregon, Virginia, Stanford, Iowa State, Washington, Brigham Young, Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma State.

Well, everyone.

It’s also exciting that on Nov. 13, the nation’s No. 1 women’s team – the Lobos – will be at the UNM North Golf Course hosting a regional run. The NCAA finals are set for Nov. 21 in Louisville. Franklin’s women are coming off their eighth consecutive Mountain West championship, and it is expected that they will enter the NCAA finals carrying that lofty No. 1 ranking. The women also won an invitational this season at Notre Dame and another at Wisconsin.

Franklin, plus coaches such as Glen Millican (men’s golf) and Jeremy Fishbein (men’s soccer), are the hidden jewels over at the Lobos’ jock shop. These are Lobo programs that are consistent threats for Top 20 – or better – consideration.

Franklin has won eight straight Mountain West coach of the year titles in women’s cross country. He has a bundle of regional and conference titles in men and women’s track. It’s safe to say that Franklin is the most decorated coach in the department and also brought a national coach of the year award with him when he came to UNM from Butler.

So, why is he still at New Mexico – a mid-level athletic program in a mid-level conference being led by a mid-level athletics director?

The answer might be twofold. Franklin likes New Mexico. Franklin once battled cancer and understands the importance of day-to-day happiness.

One of Franklin’s favorite quotes is: “This isn’t about me.” He has long directed praise and attention at his runners and attempts to deflect any glory that might come his way. He understands that a man is best measured by how he treats others.

But Joe likes to win.

Joe also likes living. He had a five-year battle beginning in 2002 with leukemia – acute myeloid leukemia. At one point, he stayed in the hospital for 30 days in isolation. Joe said he didn’t know if he was going to live or die. “You just do what they tell you to do and hope you make it through,” he said.

Other cancer victims in Joe’s unit were not so lucky – four died and two lived. Joe won his battle, but the unhealthy diet that comes with coaching, traveling and recruiting later added 50 pounds to his 5-foot-8 frame. Joe was fat. He lost 50 pounds and has been keeping it off.

“For about seven years, I would eat two Ding Dongs for breakfast with a glass of chocolate milk,” Joe told this reporter. “I quit that.”

Joe Franklin is laid back, easy going and humble. He’s a nice guy with an “aw shucks” attitude toward his accomplishments, but there is a strong push to win. “There’s not a lot to me,” he says. “I’m a pretty simple guy.”

They say nice guys finish last, but not always. This Lobo nice guy has a chance to be No. 1.

Richard Stevens is a former sports writer for The Albuquerque Tribune. More recently he was an insider at the Lobo athletic department. Reach him at rstev50@gmail.com.

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Lex Voytek is a nervous wreck and reading quiets the noise. Reach her at books@freeabq.com.