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The Arizona/New Mexico football rivalry goes way back

This used to be THE rivalry for the Wildcats

Jackie Wallace and Mark Neal hold Kit Carson's rifle in 1972
Jackie Wallace and Mark Neal hold Kit Carson's rifle in 1972
Arizona Athletics

Even though the 2015 New Mexico Bowl will only be the third time the Arizona Wildcats and New Mexico Lobos have met on the gridiron this millennium, the history of this rivalry goes way back, and has some controversy and social intrigue mixed in along the way.

The first meeting between the two teams occurred in 1908, and according to the Hall of Champions on the campus of the University of Arizona, it was set up by the Tucson Star:

ua/unm 1908

Arizona won the 1908 game 10-5. UNM won it the next year 23-11. Even though New Mexico didn't have football in 1910, the rivalry resumed in 1911.

Starting in 1920, the two schools played each other every year until 1942 (World War II). They picked it back up in 1946, and played every single season through 1977. Arizona then made the move to the Pac-10 with Arizona State, and have only played the Lobos five times since leaving them in the WAC.

Until this weekend.

This will not be the first time these two teams have played each other in a bowl game either. The 1997 Insight Bowl matched the old rivals up in Tucson, a game the Wildcats won 20-14. But it was memorable for more than that.

For five decades, UNM and UA played for Kit Carson's Rifle. The rivalry, which Arizona leads 43-20-3 all-time, was known as "The Battle for Kit Carson's Rifle". But in 1997, the decision was made to get rid of the prize.

"We don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable with an antique gun being used as a game trophy," then-UA athletic director Jim Livengood said. "It's just not in the spirit of intercollegiate athletics."


Kit Carson was not always a bad guy. He was a key part of the conquest of California during the Mexican-American War. He was responsible for taking San Diego, and claiming the entire part of Southern California for the United States.

After that was all over, he returned to his home in Taos, New Mexico to take up ranching. He was able to earn tons of money by flocking sheep to California during the 1850s Gold Rush.

But then the Civil War started, and Carson returned to his military duties. Stationed in New Mexico, his main orders were to relocate the Navajo to a reservation set up by a government in a far-away location. This obviously didn't sit well with the Navajo, and they fought back against the once-trusted Carson.

In 1864, they surrendered to Carson, and thus began "The Long Walk". 8,500 Navajo were marched 300 miles to Bosque Redondo, where at least 200 of them died thanks to the wintery conditions of the two-month journey, and the starvation that came with it. Three years later, the Navajo were granted sovereignty, but not after the damage was done by Carson and his people. Carson also died that year.


The year that Kit Carson's Rifle became the rivalry trophy for the Arizona/New Mexico Game is unclear, although most signs point to 1928. The rifle itself is inscribed with scores from the games from 1937 to 1976:

kit carson's rifle butt

kit carson's rifle barrel

kit carson's rifle barrel

There are many legends surrounding the actual gun, where it came from, and why it exists. No one's even really sure if the rifle actually belonged to Kit Carson, and was responsible for the death of many Native Americans.

The accepted legend, at Arizona at least, is that Pop McKale acquired it from Geronimo in 1909. Yes, that Geronimo.

While this is awesome, and probably why it's the legend, it's also likely untrue. The more real version of the gun showing up in this rivalry is that McKale and New Mexico A.D. Roy Johnson introduced the rifle to add a little something extra to the rivalry, as was the custom at the time (The Territorial Cup has been around since 1899, the longest continuous rivalry trophy in the nation). But it is believed that McKale just stumbled upon the rifle in an ROTC storage room.

The last time the rifle was up for grabs was 1990, which was also the last time Arizona won a game against the Lobos in Albuqerque. The Wildcats won that day, which is why Kit Carson's Rifle is currently on display in Tucson rather than at UNM.

The decision to suspend the rifle's usage in 1997 was a very progressive one for the time. I give Jim Livengood credit for making that decision before the more-progressive times of the 2000s. While it seems the rifle itself may not have been used in the awful events surrounding "The Long Walk", the symbolism it represents by having Kit Carson's name attached to it does not need to be celebrated, especially on a college football field.

So while Arizona and New Mexico are battling it out for the New Mexico Bowl trophy, just take a second to remember how old this rivalry is, and the progressive nature that those involved with it showed in 1997, as well as some of the legends and history associated with the rivalry.

You can still visit Kit Carson's Rifle in the Hall of Champions at McKale Center:

kit carson's rifle