TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Long before the announcement of New Mexico State University playing in the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl, the Aggies have been focused on Tucson and the rest of the state.
For the last year and a half, administrators have paid for advertisements and marketing efforts aimed at potential students in Arizona. Applications show that it may be working.
The public university received 232 applications from students in Arizona for the fall of 2016. That number shot up by triple digits for a total of 359 for the fall of 2017. As of December 12, 2017, NMSU has received more than that for the upcoming fall semester, according to records provided by Justin Bannister, Associate VP for Marketing and Communications.
"Arizona is important to us," said NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers.
He was in Tucson Thursday, December 14, to meet with some alumni. The 6,049 NMSU alumni in Arizona make it the school's third-largest alumni population behind New Mexico and Texas.
The $100,000 for billboards, movie and mall advertisements and online marketing is twice what administrators spent on Tucson recruiting last year, according to Bannister.
Carruthers said NMSU is a four-hour drive away, so it's appealing to students who want to get away while not being out of touch with family and friends.
The University of Arizona won't be facing NMSU on the field, Friday Dec. 29, but the school could have some competition in Tucson.
"On a student basis, I think we're very competitive with the University of Arizona," said Carruthers.
The local university is closely tied to southern Arizona. Tours on campus, recruiter visits to southern Arizona schools and both an incoming and an outgoing call center focused on admissions and recruiting are just a few of the resources at Arizona's disposal.
Dr. Kasey Urquidez, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Advancement and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, said they are aware of other schools being interested in southern Arizona but the U of A is committed to keeping the best and brightest in the community.
Melina Casillas is a member of the student recruitment team. Her responsibilities include making phone calls, writing cards and generally checking up with prospective students who haven't finished their application.
As a transfer from Pima Community College, Casillas sets up a table at PCC to help anyone interested make the transition. She's a Tucson native, so there was never a question where she'd enroll.
"It was an in-state school, it was the closest school to me," she said. "And I was just born and raised here, in Tucson. The U of A was a no-brainer for me."
Before he was recruiting for the Aggies, Chancellor Carruthers was a student at NMSU. In fact, he cheered on the team during its last bowl game in 1960. He compared the wait for another bowl to the anticipation of a Chicago Cubs' World Series Championship.
"I've been rooting for these Aggies to get back to bowl game for a long, long time and this is the year," he said.
Like this year's game, New Mexico State played Utah State. Back then it was the Sun Bowl. This time it's the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Carruthers said NMSU has already sold 6,000 tickets and he's anticipating up to 40,000 people attending the game.
He said attendance has been better for NMSU home games this season, but it's tough to attract a crowd when there are so many other events and responsibilities for students.
"When I went to school back in the late 50s, early 60s, you had football, country western dances and going to the library," he joked. "That was about the extent of it as a student."
The Aggies finished their undefeated season with a bowl game win in 1960. Carruthers said this time around feels more special to him.
"It's more exciting right now," he said. "The feeling in the community has been building up and building up."