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Neal’s the man

Craig Neal, who has served as associate head coach for six seasons, was named head coach of the Lobo men’s basketball program on Tuesday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
Craig Neal, who has served as associate head coach for six seasons, was named head coach of the Lobo men’s basketball program on Tuesday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
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It only took one word for the jilted Lobo nation to rejoice.

“Noodles.”

Shortly after it had been reported by multiple media outlets Tuesday evening, University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs took to Twitter and used just one word to announce the hiring of Craig Neal as the next head coach for the Lobos.

“Noodles,” as the 49-year-old Neal has been affectionately known since he was a scrawny 6-foot-5, 140-pound high school star in Indiana, was the overwhelming fan, player and booster favorite to fill the head coaching seat left vacant Saturday morning, when his close friend Steve Alford announced he would be leaving UNM to take the head coaching job at UCLA.

“I love the fans of New Mexico and am very happy to be their new head coach,” Neal told the Journal in a text message after the news broke.

Neal, who has never been a head coach, will be given a five-year deal worth $750,000 a season, plus a performance incentives package that has not yet been disclosed. Further details of the contract will be released when Neal is formally introduced as UNM’s coach at a 3 p.m. news conference today.

“I’m truly honored to be the head coach at the University of New Mexico,” Neal said in a prepared release sent to media Tuesday night. “Over the past six years my family and I have been overwhelmed by the support we have received in this community. Coach Alford allowed me the opportunity to really make an impact on this program, and I’m excited to continue building on what we started six years ago.”

Neal has been Alford’s associate head coach the past nine seasons (six at UNM and three at Iowa). In that time, the Lobos had a record of 155-52, and Iowa had a record in Neal’s three seasons of 63-35.

Alford was formally introduced as UCLA’s coach Tuesday in Los Angeles.

“I am so very happy for Noodles,” Alford told the Journal on Tuesday night in a text message. “He’s earned this. He’s so ready to be a head coach. I’m so pleased he is leading the UNM program. Wow, great day!!!”

At UNM, Neal had more responsibilities than a typical assistant coach. In addition to player development and recruiting coordinating duties, Neal was often at all the same community outreach and athletics department booster functions that Alford was contractually obligated to attend as the head coach. Saturday, even before he had been named interim head coach, Neal had already been on the phone calling players the program is recruiting for next season and beyond.

Krebs said he is comfortable in Neal’s ability to provide stability for the program that has won the Mountain West Conference regular-season and tournament titles each of the past two seasons.

“We are excited that Craig Neal will be our next basketball coach,” said Krebs. “We did a tremendous amount of work and research in a very short time. Craig was a major part of a staff that has not only won championships but graduated student-athletes, raised our academics to record levels and poured a tremendous amount of energy into our community in the form of service projects. Craig probably had as much freedom with our program in making decisions as any associate head coach in the country, and his time working with coach Alford has prepared him fully for this task.”

Said UNM President Robert Frank: “Coach Neal understands what being a Lobo is all about. He impressed me with his vision, dedication and passion for leading here.”

The groundswell of support for Neal since Saturday came at Krebs fast and furious from all angles.

“I consider Craig a good friend as I consider Steve a good friend,” said Leland Gould, director of governmental affairs for Western Refining and a longtime Lobos athletics supporter. “Craig has already been doing for years some of those things head coaches are usually the only ones doing. I have the utmost faith that he’s the right guy for the program.”

Del Archuleta, Lobo booster and president/CEO of Molzen-Corbin & Associates, said he too was pushing for Neal, while also empathizing with Krebs in not making an immediate, emotional decision Saturday. Archuleta, among other boards and appointments around the state, is a former regent at New Mexico State University who has served on search committees for presidential openings.

“I know Craig can not only carry over the success, but take this to the next level,” Archuleta said prior to Tuesday’s announcement.

And while Neal was Alford’s right-hand man, he’s hardly an Alford clone. Neal, a fiery competitor who wears his emotions on his sleeve much more than Alford did, will use some press on defense (Alford almost never did) and run a more up-tempo offense than was utilized in recent seasons. The principals of a motion offense will remain as Neal was the team’s offensive coordinator under Alford.

Players, recruits, fans and boosters have shown support for Neal in recent days, including sophomore center Alex Kirk, who suggested he might follow Alford to Los Angeles with a transfer if Neal wasn’t hired.

While Kirk, who can graduate in August and transfer without sitting out a season, has not made a final decision on his future, he and his teammates were happy to hear the man who led the recruiting efforts for the team the past six years is now the boss.

“As a parent, my main concern from the start was just the kids and that they not be kept in the dark about anything,” Alan Kirk, Alex’s dad, said. “We’ve always been very comfortable with Craig, and I think (his being hired) is a good step toward keeping the team together. I know those kids all really like Craig.”

Alan Kirk said Neal was the coach who did the bulk of Alex Kirk’s recruitment since the 7-foot center’s sophomore year at Los Alamos High School.

UNM, which went 29-6 this past season and finished the regular season ranked No. 10 in the nation, could return all five starters next season if Kirk stays on the team and junior guard Tony Snell decides not to declare for the NBA draft, which he has until April 16 to decide.

With Alford’s move to UCLA, his son Bryce, a senior at La Cueva High School, will not play at UNM next season after all. Neal’s son, Cullen, a senior at Eldorado High School and also an All-State performer, has signed a national letter of intent to play at St. Mary’s in California. As of Tuesday night, that had not changed, but the Neal family — Craig, wife Janet, Cullen and youngest son Dalton — had not yet discussed as a family how dad’s new head coaching job could change some other decisions.

Neal received hundreds of calls and text messages Tuesday after the news broke with congratulations and job inquiries for the two remaining assistant coaching positions now open on the Lobos staff — one left by his moving up to head coach and the other by Duane Broussard’s move to follow Alford to UCLA. Other assistant coaches Drew Adams and Craig Snow, as well as video coordinator Brandon Mason, remain with Neal on the Lobos staff.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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