How Monterrey Tech became heart of Mexican college football

Monterrey Tech players are cheered on as they pass through the stands on their way to the field before a recent game. Jonathan Levinson for ESPN

MONTERREY, Mexico -- The University of Alabama, with 16 national championships, is a logical place to start when talking about college football dominance. But there's a team much farther south -- one with 21 national titles, 17 in the past 30 years -- that shouldn't be left out of the conversation.

Tecnológico de Monterrey -- or Monterrey Tech, as it's known colloquially in English -- is a private educational institution at the heart of a nationwide network of high schools and universities. Its main campus boasts some of Mexico's leading academic facilities.

And in a city that's a hotbed for American football, an ambitious coach with NFL connections and aspirations built Monterrey Tech built into a national powerhouse.

Approximately 140 miles from Laredo, Texas, Monterrey's location as well as its strong middle class have long made the city a hub for so-called American sports. In 1996, it hosted the first MLB regular-season games played outside the U.S. and Canada. That same year, a sellout crowd at the city's Estadio Universitario saw the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Dallas Cowboys in an NFL preseason game.

Today, football is among the most popular sports in Mexico, ranking second only to soccer in parts of the country. And while Monday night's NFL game between the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders will be played in Mexico City, the sport's biggest success at the college level can be found 600 miles to the north at Monterrey Tech.

Across the street from the campus' eastern limit is the Estadio Tecnológico, a six-decade-old, 36,000-seater that hosts Monterrey Tech's football team, the Borregos Salvajes (Wild Rams). On campus, there are constant reminders of the team's prowess. Mascot logos are prominent on merchandise, apparel, in-house promos and, of course, posters for upcoming games and pep rallies. The practice fields and stadium are branded with the team's colors and logo and motivational slogans in both Spanish and English.

The facilities -- and the program itself -- are modeled as closely as possible to NCAA and NFL standards, an initiative spearheaded by former coach Francisco "Frank" Gonzalez, a Mexican native who grew up in the United States and first came to Monterrey Tech in 1975 after gaining a scholarship while playing high school football in Texas.

"I was inspired by John F. Kennedy and his pursuit of doing something great for the American people," said Gonzalez, who became Monterrey Tech's head coach in 1986. "He came up with putting a man on the moon, and my version of that was to get one of my players into the NFL."

Gonzalez's clubs won 16 national championships in his 26 years at the helm. His recruiting tactics were so effective that the university developed satellite football programs in more than a dozen campuses across Mexico to accommodate all the players who wished to play for Monterrey Tech.

"There are so many things across the program that still bear his mark," said Carlos Altamirano, the team's current head coach and a Gonzalez recruit who quarterbacked Monterrey Tech in the late 1990s.

Taking cues from the north

One of Monterrey Tech's advantages comes from its network of prep schools. Prepa Tec, the high school-level team, recruits and generates scholarships for players hopeful to move on to the program's next level. Prepa Tec's relative proximity to the U.S. border makes it possible to schedule annual games against top Texas teams.

"One year, we played Woodlands, and after the game, I had their coach come up to me asking if I wanted to study and compete for them," said Adrian Lamothe, a former Prepa Tec punter who in 2013 walked on at the University of Alabama as the first Mexican-born player to be recruited by the Crimson Tide.

It wasn't just the high school team that gained experience and exposure by venturing up north. Gonzalez often made trips to observe top college programs -- and eventually NFL teams -- in the States.

"Frank changed scouting, coaching and player training in Mexico with the things he learned in the NFL," said Tony Salazar, a friend and colleague of Gonzalez who now calls games for crosstown rival Auténticos Tigres.

One thing Gonzalez quickly learned was how much room there was for improvement at Monterrey Tech. "I saw that my players were more or less playing at a high school level," he said.

Throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, Monterrey Tech would reach out to college campuses across the United States, starting nearby in Texas and ending up at powerhouses in the Northeast. Gonzalez would bring knowledge back across the border and indoctrinate his staff and squad until he was confident they were ready to push on to the next level.

After years of mostly successful visits, Gonzalez hit a roadblock at Penn State in 1998, where Joe Paterno's staff afforded him only a few game tapes that didn't reveal much. Undeterred, Gonzalez cold-called Juan Castillo, a former Monterrey Tech teammate who had become Andy Reid's offensive line coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"He remembered me," Gonzalez said. "I told him what had happened at Penn State, and Juan asked me if I would be interested in visiting the Eagles and learning something."

That led to an internship with the Eagles, providing Gonzalez with the opportunity to assess NFL talent up close and compare it to his own. "I saw their players and told Juan that I had a couple of players who weren't too far from this level," he said. Castillo recommended that Gonzalez contact scouts at NFL Europe, the now-defunct developmental league.

One expert who took notice of Monterrey Tech's talent was Jim Tomsula, an NFL Europe scout at the time who went on to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Tomsula signed off on the first wave of Monterrey Tech players who entered the NFL's pipeline in Europe: Rolando Cantú, Eduardo Castañeda and Ramiro Pruneda.

It was through the NFL Europe connection that Gonzalez landed his man on the moon, albeit for a short visit. It would be Cantú, an offensive lineman who played for the Berlin Thunder before being signed to the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad in 2004. He made history as the first player from a Mexican college to appear in a regular-season NFL game when he played in the Cardinals' 2005 season finale. Cantú, whose career was cut short by a knee injury in 2006, now works in Arizona's front office.

While other Monterrey Tech products have made it as far as training camps and practice squads, Cantú is still the only one to have hit NFL pay dirt. Former Monterrey Tech kicker Diego Gonzalez, who received a scholarship from the University of Colorado and was the Buffaloes' starter in 2016, might be the next best hope. But he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the Buffaloes' third game.

"Scouts are starting to look at Mexican players," Salazar said. "Guys down here are getting bigger, faster and stronger. They just need to continue to have a stage to be noticed."

Diego Gonzalez had to sit out a year after transferring from Monterrey Tech to Colorado in 2013. That highlights another barrier that separates Mexico from big-time U.S. college football and beyond: the tangled web of eligibility rules. "There's a serious lack of information," Lamothe said. "Parents, coaches, the players themselves -- none of them know what it takes to become eligible for the NCAA. It's very rigorous."

A league of their own

Monterrey Tech has done more than just dominate Mexican college football on the field; it completely changed the landscape of the game off it. By 2008, there were rumblings that most of the public universities, discouraged by their inability to competitively recruit against private schools such as Monterrey Tech, wanted to defect from ONEFA, which had been the country's primary college league, the closest thing in Mexico to the NCAA.

After the 2008 season -- and another title for the Borregos -- Monterrey Tech's main hub and satellite campuses beat the public schools to the punch by leaving ONEFA and forming a new league for private schools, CONADEIP, which debuted in 2010. The split remains today, although local rivals often organize interconference games to keep old flames alive. "We're looking to reunite. I know that's something I've wanted and asked for since [coaching in ONEFA]," Altamirano said.

Monterrey Tech's armor hasn't been quite as impenetrable since Frank Gonzalez retired after the team's 2012 championship. The Borregos lost in the 2013 championship game and failed to reach the 2014 final, but they rebounded to win the CONADEIP title last year.

This season, however, Monterrey Tech has encountered woes both on and off the field. When Altamirano took over midseason, he became the team's third head coach in the post-Gonzalez era. The Borregos won their final two games to finish the regular season at 6-4, third in their division. They open the playoffs Saturday.

"We know the fans aren't accustomed to [a subpar season], but we have to give credit to our competition, too," said Altamirano. "There are some very good teams in this league."

And that, perhaps, is the bigger challenge for the future. Monterrey Tech's blueprint is being successfully replicated across the country. That means the next players to make the jump from Mexico to the NCAA or NFL might come from another program.

"It's clear that teams in the United States will be looking elsewhere," Salazar warns.

Despite potential twists in the tale that could spell the end of its lengthy dominance, Monterrey Tech will always be known as the cradle of college football in Mexico, and the school's impact on the sport is likely among the reasons the NFL is returning to the country more than a decade after its last visit.