ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Craig Neal’s Harley-Davidson entrance into the Pit for the Oct. 18 Lobo Howl may have been welcomed with a standing ovation from 10,000-plus Lobo fans, but at least one person in attendance wasn’t so comfortable with it.
Cullen Neal, the University of New Mexico freshman who also happens to be the son of first-year head coach Craig Neal, isn’t a motorcycles fan.
“When they were talking about it and setting it up (the day of the Howl), Cullen went two or three times to check on things to make sure everything was going to be OK with him coming down the ramp,” Janet Neal, Cullen’s mom and Craig’s wife, said. “He was worried.”
The worry has gone both ways in the first few months for the Neals.
Not only is Craig Neal getting used to being a head coach with his son on the team; he’s a father who has already watched his son go through a pair of serious health scares while trying to adapt to the college game.
Since August, Cullen Neal has suffered a ruptured appendix (he spent 11 days in a Sydney hospital) while the Lobos were on an international exhibition trip in Australia, then the UNM freshman was diagnosed with mononucleosis after suffering through a general lack of energy in the team’s first two weeks of practice.
The mononucleosis, likely a result of his overburdened immune system after the appendectomy, appears to already be in the past, and Cullen Neal says he doesn’t anticipate missing any playing time, even Saturday’s exhibition opener in the Pit against Eastern New Mexico.
“I feel fine now,” Cullen Neal said. “I don’t think it will be an issue. Knock on wood, I guess I’m just getting all this behind me now before the season starts.”
The coach and dad in Craig Neal hopes his son is right about that so things can get back to normal sooner rather than later.
Then again, what is normal? The Neals have never been through this before. Craig Neal never coached his son at the high school or AAU levels of basketball. He operated over the past several years under the presumption he wouldn’t be doing so in college, either.
The new coaching scenario actually seems to be more relief to the father/son relationship than burden, according to both.
“I never got to coach him in AAU or in high school basketball, so when the game was over, I was coaching him, and he wanted me to be Dad,” Craig Neal said. “Sometimes he’d come off the floor and I’d try to coach him, and he’d just look at me and want me to be Dad. You could see it. So that was a tough part. I think the best thing is we go through practice then once it’s over, I go back to Dad. It’s been working well.”
Cullen Neal agrees, saying there hasn’t been any awkwardness, so far, with the roles on and off the court.
“He gets to coach me all he wants now because he has me in practice,” Cullen Neal said. “And he’s hard on me, which I like. I came here because I know he’ll get me better. But then when practice is over, he goes back to being Dad, which is good.”
As for the on-court communication, the younger Neal said he simply can’t get past one thing he’s been doing his whole life.
“Honestly, when I say ‘Coach,’ he doesn’t even answer me,” Cullen Neal said. “I decided to just call him ‘Dad’ and stick with that. I’ve slipped up a few times and called him ‘Coach Dad’ but I’m just going to stick with Dad.”
The ease of the transition for the two was helped greatly in April when Cullen Neal, then an Eldorado High School senior, did some homework and reached out to several other players who played college basketball for their coach/fathers before deciding to get out of his St. Mary’s College commitment and stay in Albuquerque to play for the Lobos.
“I texted Cullen quite a bit actually when he was deciding,” Creighton All-America forward Doug McDermott told the Journal this summer. “I was just trying to give him advice, telling him how I’ve liked it and kind of my experience. I think he took the advice and kind of ran with it. I think he made the right choice.”
Doug, who plays for his father, Greg McDermott, at Creighton, said he thinks the dynamic can only work if the players in the locker room are supportive of it.
“I think it’s been good,” UNM senior forward Kendall Williams said of the father/son coaching situation. “He doesn’t take it easy on Cullen, which is good. Most of the time, he’s even more aggressive on Cullen. That’s good to see. You want to see that competitive nature between the two. But for the rest of us, it’s good. He’s just one of us.”
Craig Neal said he also leaned on the advice of others heading into this season, saying he spoke with colleagues who coached their sons, such as friend and UNM predecessor Steve Alford, McDermott and Lon Kruger.
But what happens when that fiery parent’s passion that was witnessed by many in recent years at Eldorado High School games gets tested during a UNM game this season, after an opposing player lands a hard foul on Cullen or an opposing fan base starts taunting him?
“I think he’s going to be zoned in, going to be coaching,” Cullen Neal said. “That’s what he has to do, even though I’m his son. And when you think about it, he’s that way with all his players. Nothing changes. This is all one big family.”
Case in point may be when Craig Neal started barking at an Air Force assistant last season during a game in the Pit, leading to both benches clearing and teams meeting at center court for a shouting match. Neal felt Falcons assistant Steve Snell said something inappropriate to Lobo senior Jamal Fenton.
“He’s a good coach,” Neal told the Journal after that game. “But you don’t mess with our players. That’s all it was. Don’t go at our players.”
When his vocal and passionate demeanor in the stands at Eldorado games came up last week in reference to how he’ll handle it in game situations with Cullen this season, Craig Neal said nothing will change.
“This is all a family,” he said. “That’s who I am. I’m protective on the court of my family, and this whole team is my family on that court. If I see something I think is wrong for any of my guys, Cullen or anyone else, I’m probably going to say something.”