Texas Tech’s loss becomes win for UNM

Despite his many talents on the football field, Brian Urlacher was not a hot prospect coming out of Lovington High School.

Urlacher’s only scholarship offers for football came from the state of New Mexico. Both the Lobos and Aggies offered Urlacher scholarships.  

Just like the game, one school scored before the other had a chance and the rest is history. 

“Coach Franchione in our meeting said you know we want to offer you a scholarship, but if you don’t take it right now we will give it to someone else. That’s a pretty simple decision for me, so I took it right there,” Urlacher said. [Coach Franchione: UNM head football coach from 1992-1997]

When Urlacher accepted a scholarship to play football at UNM, New Mexico State University offered him one as well, but they were too late. 

“Coach Hess was driving to Lovington and I said coach, I have already committed to UNM. You can come hang out, but I can’t really accept a scholarship offer from you,” Urlacher said. 

So he headed to New Mexico’s biggest city not really knowing what to expect. He said he remembers feeling nervous leaving home and playing against guys who deserve to be in college.

“Everyone said that you’re a big fish in a small pond, playing at Lovington. You’re a good athlete, but you don’t play any good talent. So, I was like I guess we are going to find out.” 

As a UNM freshman, most of Urlacher’s playing time was on special teams. He says he didn’t get any snaps on defense until the final game of the season.

However, things started to change in his sophomore year. 

“I didn’t start, but I led the team in tackles. I got better every year.”

It wasn’t a snub from Texas Tech that was fueling his fire, but an acknowledgment of his own abilities on the field.

“The thing that made me want to get better is I saw myself getting better. I was like oh…if I do this I am going to get better. If I spend more time in the weight room this is what happens.” 

Urlacher says his biggest gains were not on the football, but on the basketball court.

“You know where I saw my ability grow the most was on the basketball court because I could dunk in high school. I could do some things, but I couldn’t do trick dunks, windmills and 360’s. The stronger I got in college, the more explosive I got on the basketball court.”

Some who have seen Urlacher play basketball believe he could have played on the next level if he wanted to. 

Urlacher’s says he has much respect for the guys in the NBA and might have gone to a tryout.

He’s unsure about where his basketball career could have gone, but says he thinks he could hold his own on defense. 

Defense has always been where Urlacher has done his best work.

As a Lobo he put UNM on the national map with a junior season that demanded recognition. He also led the nation in tackles in 1999 with 178.

Urlacher starred in a position called “The Lobo,” created by then head-coach Rocky Long. It was a half linebacker half safety position that gave Urlacher what he always craved on the field, room to roam.

“You know that defense lends itself to guys who like to roam around. If you can understand where you need to fit, what you need to do on every play, you can make a lot of plays in that defense.”

Urlacher did more than make plans on defense. Coach Long made sure he was on the field as much as possible.

“It was unbelievable Coach Long just let me be an athlete, be a football player, just go out there and showcase my ability. I firmly believe that if he didn’t go to UNM and wasn’t our head coach I would not have got drafted where I got drafted. I believe that.”  

On his way to the 2000 NFL Draft, Urlacher became an All-American his senior year. 

“My senior year I won’t say I was surprised to get it because I was pretty good by then. I had gotten better. My junior year I was okay. My senior year, the second year in Coach Long’s system, I was pretty good. I knew where I was supposed to go as a safety and I knew what was going on,” said Urlacher. 

In his final year, the standout Lobo found himself running for the Jim Thorpe Award and finished 12th in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year. 

It also placed him among other big-name players at the College Football Awards.

“I didn’t feel like I fit in at all, but it was cool to see,” said Urlacher. However, he showed how much he belonged with the top names when the Senior Bowl rolled around. He was also considered one of the top players in the game.

“I had a very good senior bowl. That’s when I first started playing linebacker and I was defensive MVP for the game. So that kind of opened some eyes. The Combine, I think, just solidified what kind of athlete I was,” Urlacher said. 

The NFL Combine followed and Urlacher did not disappoint. 

“I was so stressed out going in there. I just didn’t know what to expect because they keep you up late and wake you up early. You go to bed at about 12:30 or 1. They knock on your door at 5:30 to get up and start doing interviews. I think we ran the 40 at 6:30 a.m. in the morning. You know they get you up. They want you uncomfortable.”

Urlacher was advised by his handlers not to run at the NFL Scouting Combine, but Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator Greg Blanche convinced him to do the opposite, which turned out to be a good decision. 

Urlacher says that Blash told him that it would be better for him to run that day since every GM, head coach, scouts, and position coaches were going to the there.

What would have happened if Urlacher chose not to run that day? After the Combine, he emerged as a solid first-round draft candidate. 

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