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Neal has team's backing

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Craig Neal, who has been Steve Alford’s right-hand man at New Mexico the past six seasons, has the backing of Lobo players to take over as permanent head coach of a program that went 29-6 this season. (JOURNAL FILE)

Craig Neal, who has been Steve Alford’s right-hand man at New Mexico the past six seasons, has the backing of Lobo players to take over as permanent head coach of a program that went 29-6 this season. (JOURNAL FILE)

Alford’s top assistant named New Mexico’s interim boss

New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs says it’s important to listen to the student athletes most directly involved in a program about what they think is best for the future of Lobos basketball.

There is no question which coach the Lobo players want to take over for Steve Alford, who on Saturday left the program to accept a seven-year coaching deal at UCLA for $2.6 million annually.

University of New Mexico players – current and former – and many others around the program, including Alford, expressed strong support for associate head coach Craig Neal, who was named interim head coach by Krebs on Saturday morning.

He’s Gone 
Steve Alford says he loves New Mexico, but the UCLA job was too good to pass up.

“Oh yeah,” UNM sophomore center Alex Kirk said when asked if there was locker room support for Neal.

“I definitely think there is. I think that’s important. If coach Neal got the job, I think there’d be a chance to keep everything together. … We’ve all been talking and I think we all have to see what our options are.”

Kirk told the Journal that while he can’t say for sure he’d stay if Neal is hired, “there is pretty much no chance” he’d stay with the program if Neal isn’t hired.

The 7-footer from Los Alamos can graduate in August with a full summer course load. The NCAA allows graduate transfers to a new Division I program without sitting out a season, meaning Kirk could be eligible to play at UCLA or any other program at the start of the 2013-14 season – so long as that school offers a graduate school program not offered at New Mexico.

Neal said he is absolutely interested in the job, though he did not address the collected media Saturday.

He did, however, meet with Krebs after the Alford announcement.

“I challenged Neal to run this program – provide some stability in the interim by reaching out to recruits and all the players and guide us in this time,” Krebs said.

When Yvonne Sanchez was hired as the UNM women’s head coach, replacing Don Flanagan, it was after she was “challenged” by Krebs to maintain stability as an interim coach of that team.

Neal, who coordinated the program’s recruiting efforts, had already reached out to all the team’s recruits by the time he met with Krebs on Saturday afternoon.

The 49-year-old Neal has been Alford’s top assistant the past nine seasons (six at UNM and three at Iowa) following an assistant coaching stint with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. Neal also played in the NBA after a stellar collegiate career at Georgia Tech. From Washington, Ind., Neal was on the same 1984 Indiana high school all-state team as Alford.

One nonplayer associated with the Lobos basketball program told the Journal that Neal “is the brains behind the operation a lot more than people realize.”

That person added that he wasn’t suggesting Neal did more than Alford, but that Neal was very much equal in the success of the past six seasons as the head coach was with how he dealt with recruiting, X’s and O’s and player development.

Krebs acknowledged Neal’s role with the program has been significant.

“If you’ve been around the program for the last six years, it’s not hard to understand that coach Neal has had a strong impact on the program,” Krebs said. “Coach Alford has given him a lot of freedom within the program, and Craig has been a critical part of the success. I think Craig is an outstanding coach.”

But that doesn’t mean Krebs is ready to hand him the keys to the program just yet.

“You want to make sure you’re exhausting all the possibilities and you’re doing all the vetting of candidates and you’re exhausting in your process,” Krebs said.

Krebs said Saturday evening there was no shortage of candidates already expressing interest, and that he and deputy athletic director Tim Cass would do their due diligence in selecting the next coach. Some recent big-name coaches now looking for work include Ben Howland, whom Alford replaced at UCLA, and Tubby Smith, recently fired from Minnesota.

Also, Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall, who led the Shockers into the Final Four with a victory over Ohio State on Saturday, pursued the UNM head coaching job six years ago and was a finalist before Alford was hired.

Krebs said he is well aware that Neal is a big reason why the program is strong today.

“Six years ago, we’re in the play-in game in the Mountain West Conference and we’re getting our ass kicked,” Krebs said. “We were not a very good basketball team. … If you look at where we were and where we are, this program is in remarkably better shape.”

Cameron Bairstow, a senior-to-be forward from Australia, acknowledged he and fellow Aussie Hugh Greenwood have the opportunity at any time to return home and play professionally in their home country. But Bairstow added it is too early to speculate what teammates will do.

“The most confusing aspect right now is we don’t know who’s getting the position, so obviously we can’t put a lot of thought into what the future holds,” Bairstow said.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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