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Neal gets to make his mark

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This begins a series of stories profiling the coaches of University of New Mexico men’s basketball.

Bobby Cremins began preaching one simple message to Craig Neal 30 years ago when the 6-foot-5, 160-pound guard from Washington, Ind., arrived on the Georgia Tech campus to play basketball.

“Slow down,” said Cremins, the legendary former Yellow Jackets coach. “On the court, he played so fast. He would go 120 miles an hour. I finally got him to slow up a little bit, but not much.”

Three decades later, it seems the 49-year-old Neal – the mop-topped basketball lifer who still frequently rides his Harley-Davidson Road King to the office – still has done very little in terms of slowing down.

Instead, the 20th head coach of the University of New Mexico men’s basketball program has found a remarkable amount of patience to coincide with his high-octane passion and tenacious drive.

As driven as he is, Neal was content for the past nine years being the associate head coach alongside best friend Steve Alford – three seasons with the Iowa Hawkeyes and for the past six seasons building UNM into the most successful program in the Mountain West Conference. In that time, Neal enjoyed more responsibility in terms of running the program, game planning and Xs and Os than just about any non-head coach in the country.

“Craig has always been patient,” said former Georgia Tech teammate Mark Price, who started ahead of Neal early in their college careers. “Nine years is a long time, and it’s overdue. I’m sure he’s going to shine now that he was able to wait for such a good opportunity.”

Neal and Alford, best friends since third grade, shared a fierce competitive fire, but projected that passion in very different ways. Alford’s guarded, introverted personality was countered by Neal’s emotional, extroverted one.

And while the continued success of the program is a must for Neal, he wasn’t hired merely to continue what Alford started.

“The first two years I think it’s Craig’s first responsibility to establish the Craig Neal basketball program,” UNM president Robert Frank said. “Set the tempo for the basketball program according to Craig Neal.

“He was Steve’s assistant, but now he’s the head coach. There’s a difference between being an assistant and in being a head coach. I was a provost before I was a president. You think you know what it’s like to take the head job, but when you step into those shoes, the world looks different.”

Small town roots

“The Hatchett House!” Neal lights up when the name of his high school gym is mentioned. “That’s big time: 7,000 seats. It’s a special place.”

That was the gym in the southwest Indiana town of Washington – population 11,000 – where the young Craig Neal made a name for himself.

And at well above 6 feet tall while weighing a debatable 150 pounds at the time, arms and legs flailing as he sprinted around the basketball court, that name he made was “Noodles.”

“He was thin as a rail,” Stan Neal, his dad and high school coach, recalled. “We would get accused of not feeding him.”

The nickname has stuck with Craig Neal, so much so his hiring was announced via a one-word message on the Twitter account of UNM athletic director Paul Krebs: “Noodles.”

So too have the small town roots of Washington stuck. In a town where his mother, Fran, still gets asked frequently at church about her children, Craig Neal seemed to know and be liked by everybody.

“He cares about people,” Fran Neal said. “He always has, and it shows up because he is an emotional guy.”

It was in Washington as a third-grader that he met the son of another successful Indiana basketball coach and started a lifelong friendship that landed him in Albuquerque six years ago.

“He was just always in the gym,” Fran Neal said. “That’s how he met Steve (Alford). Steve and him go way back. When Steve would come (to Washington) to visit his grandparents, they’d end up in the gym and they were always playing.”

Both were named to the 1983 All-Indiana team. Both credit playing for their fathers and their Indiana roots as the foundation for their basketball playing and coaching success.

“I think he’s one of the major reasons why I’m here in the position I’m in,” Craig Neal said of his father. “He played a major role. My mom played a major role. The city of Washington played a major role. That place kind of molded me into the person that I am today.”

And that emotion he wears on his sleeve to this day? It was on full display in his high school games at the Hatchett House – something his father encouraged.

“I always liked for my players to be passionate about the game,” Stan Neal said. “I had to hold him back some, but I always felt like that was a good thing. I always felt like that was something you couldn’t put into a player. You can kind of throttle it back sometimes if you need to, but if it’s not there, it’s just missing.”

‘Made us better’

When George Felton was at a summer basketball camp in Indiana in 1982, it didn’t take him long to fall in love with the idea of Craig Neal running up and down the court for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

The Tech associate head coach called up his boss, Cremins, and got him to Indiana as soon as possible to watch the wiry kid from Washington.

“I remember seeing this skinny little kid running up and down the floor, and I really liked him,” said Felton, now the Director of College Player Personnel for the San Antonio Spurs. “He played with such energy and he could fly. He could really handle the basketball, but the thing I really liked about him was his court vision. He could just see the floor so well.”

Neal always seemed to know where teammates were going to be, what an opposing defender was going to do and even what opposing coaches were thinking.

“He loved the game of basketball,” Cremins said. “He would drive me crazy talking about other players. And he was always bragging about Indiana basketball. I would tell him, ‘You know nothing about New York basketball.’ ”

But it didn’t matter. Craig Neal was a big reason Georgia Tech was able to mesh three stars from very different basketball backgrounds into what Felton believes was one of the best backcourt trios in the nation at the time – the Indiana star in Neal, Mark Price (from Enid, Okla.) and Bruce Dalrymple (from Harlem, N.Y.).

“He was always in the mix,” Price said. “He was always talking. Always in the middle of what was going on with the team. And I loved playing with him because he was such a good passer. He made us all better.”

Neal graduated from Georgia Tech in 1988 as the program’s all-time leader in assists (659, a number that has since been eclipsed) and remains in the top 10 in program history for career 3-point percentage and games played.

He parlayed that college career into being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, where he played 21 games in 1988-89. He finished that season by playing 32 games in the inaugural season of the Miami Heat.

Pro days

Neal’s professional playing career was a mixed bag. He had some success, but never enough to stick with a team long term – with the exception of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Fury of the Continental Basketball Association. He played for the Fury from 1992-1995, the final season as a player/coach.

It was while with the Fury that he met his wife, Janet.

“He’s always just been so personable and loved kids and the fans,” Janet Neal said. “He’s still that way.”

When Craig Neal would dive into the stands for a loose ball, his wife recalls, it wasn’t uncommon for him to reach over and take a sip of a fan’s drink. When he once made a little boy spill his popcorn, he made sure during the game somebody bought more popcorn and sent it over to the boy.

“I think that was the one that sold me on him,” Janet Neal. “He’s just always cared so much about the people around him – whether it was fans, kids in the stands, his teammates, it doesn’t matter. He’s always been that way.”

The Neal family, including sons Dalton (entering his senior year at Eldorado High School) and Cullen (entering his freshman year at UNM, where he’ll play for the Lobos), bounced around the NBA and CBA. Craig Neal was a four-year scout for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and later a four-year assistant coach for the Raptors, where he mentored such budding stars as Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.

Neal joined forces with his old Indiana friend Steve Alford at Iowa in 2004 and followed him to Albuquerque in 2007.

Cleaning up

In the fall of 2009, the Arizona Wildcats missed out on one heck of a green chile enchilada dinner at the home of Alan and Pat Kirk in Los Alamos.

And the banana cream pie for dessert wasn’t the sweetest part for the Lobos.

On the morning of Oct. 5, after Arizona called to cancel an in-home visit with the now 7-foot Alex Kirk – so they instead could visit prized in-state recruit Daniel Bejarano, who now plays for Colorado State – Neal knew what he had to do.

On the recruiting trail himself in Las Vegas, Nev., Neal quickly cancelled his plans in Sin City and flew back to Albuquerque. While he had taken his Harley Davidson on previous recruiting visits to Los Alamos, he didn’t have time on this trip, instead driving his car directly from the airport to the Kirks’ home.

Kirk was, after all, the player Neal personally identified when he got to UNM as his No. 1 priority. Not only was he a skilled center, but he was an instate kid and a player in whom Neal saw great growth potential for the program.

“We’ve always liked Craig,” Alan Kirk recalls. “From the time we met him at a Highland (High) game in Alex’s sophomore year, when Craig was there to see Chad Adams, he walked over after the game, introduced himself and said, ‘We want (Alex) to stay here.’ He just always seemed to be in the right place at the right time with Alex.”

So, when the whirlwind recruitment of Alex Kirk was down to the Arizona Wildcats and the UNM Lobos – a decision Kirk said he felt he couldn’t have gone wrong with either way – it was no wonder Neal showed up for dinner.

And after he knocked back his last slice of pie, Neal did something not many other coaches do. He helped Pat Kirk clean up the dishes.

“For the record, he doesn’t help with the dishes around our house all that much,” Janet Neal said.

But even with the dishes being done, the deal was not closed.

Alex Kirk sat quiet as Craig Neal walked out of the house.

“We were out at his car talking, and I knew how ready Alex was to just end the recruitment process,” Alan Kirk recalled, “I told Craig out at the car, ‘I thought you had him.’ But we weren’t going to make the decision for him. It had to be Alex doing it.”

Neal didn’t immediately drive back to Albuquerque.

“I walked back in and said, ‘Alex? You’ve got something you want to tell me?’ ” Neal said. “And he said, ‘Yeah. I’m coming (to UNM), coach.’”

In demand

When Steve Alford announced March 30 he was leaving UNM to take the UCLA job, it was only for about three days, including Easter, that Neal held the interim tag.

During that time, Krebs and UNM were bombarded with an unprecedented groundswell of support to “Hire Coach Noodles,” as some T-shirts seen around campus read.

Whether it was players, longtime boosters or people around the country in the basketball community, it seemed everyone was pushing for Neal.

His approachable personality preceded him as head coach and hasn’t changed since he landed the job.

“He came over to the house – he and his wife came over, and Mr. Krebs and his wife came over,” Gov. Susana Martinez said of a dinner date at the governor’s mansion. “It’s like having your next door neighbor over. It’s just so not pretentious – just normal conversations. Just an easygoing guy. We sat down we ate, we talked, we laughed. In my mind, I forgot I was sitting with the head coach of the UNM basketball team.”

Lamont Smith hadn’t been on the job as UNM’s new associate head coach for a week when he was sitting in Neal’s office wondering what his new boss was doing.

A shipment of shoes for Lobos players had just arrived, and as Smith and Neal discussed recruiting, team goals, etc., Neal was sorting through shoe boxes with a marker scribbling players’ names on the boxes.

“I stopped him and just said, ‘Craig. What are you doing? You’re the head coach,’” Smith recalls.

Neal put the pen down.

But so far, he’s let go of little else.

“My biggest thing still is how well am I going to delegate?” Neal acknowledged. “How well is my staff going to work? And how well are we going to work with our players? I think those are all things you just don’t understand until you get in that position.”

At the Craig Neal shooting camp June 1-2, he stayed up late filling out hand-written personal shooting assessments for more than 200 1st- through 12th-grade campers.

Janet Neal said it almost ruined her husband’s whole night last month when he had to turn down a request to appear at some function.

“He’s tried to say yes to everyone so far,” Janet Neal said. “He loves everyone, and everyone wants him to be here or go there. And that will be one of the hardest things for him. He doesn’t want to say no to people. He feels this great responsibility of running the program and doesn’t want to let anybody down.”

Thirty years after he went to Georgia Tech, Neal’s old coach is still trying to get one simple message across to his high-energy, high-emotion pupil.

“I was so excited for him when he got the (UNM) job because he’s so good and so deserving,” Cremins said. “But my advice to him was slow down because he still goes at things 120 miles an hour. He said, ‘Coach, I’m a lot older and more mature now. You don’t have to coach me anymore.’”

As Craig Neal is finding out, the coaching never stops.

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