Paul Weir knows what it can be like.
And he knows what it became.
As a nine-year assistant coach at New Mexico State before his one season as the Aggies’ head coach, the 38-year-old Weir had one of the best seats in the house when the Pit was still rocking.
But he also witnessed the recent downturn. This past season, attendance dropped UNM’s iconic Pit outside college basketball’s Top 25 in average home attendance for the first time in 51 seasons. The Lobos averaged 11,769 fans a game, which was 76.4 percent of capacity.
It’s time, Weir insists, to make sure the Lobos aren’t outside the Top 25 again.
And, instead of relying on UNM’s recent fallback strategy of “if they win, the fans will return,” Weir is taking on the responsibility of reinvigorating the base himself. He believes it isn’t as simple as just winning and tickets will sell. He wants to engage with fans and make them feel they are all in it together.
And he says it’s about much more than just basketball.
“We all have a duty, yourself included, to do what we can for the community in which we live in,” Weir said. “You know, I have children now. The schools are important to me. UNM is important to me. The city is important to me. The crime rate is important to me. We can’t all just stay in our huddles and neglect that, then nothing is ever going to change. The business leaders, the community leaders, people such as myself, we have a responsibility to commit to making this a better place to work and a better place to live.”
Knocking down walls
Since the day he was hired in April, Weir hasn’t turned down invitations to talk to groups, big or small.
He met fan after fan in the weeks after he was hired who kept asking what they could do to help. He openly questioned his new bosses about why they wouldn’t put season tickets on sale at a time of so much optimism.
Begrudgingly, UNM eventually moved up the start of season-ticket sales.
He knew there was a growing divide in the athletics department, including between the two most prominent programs — men’s basketball and football.
On his third day on the job, he was across the street talking to the Lobo football players during spring drills and has shown up to open practices during summer camp.
He held a basketball camp at St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe.
He signed a walk-on guard from Grants who is a member of the Navajo Nation.
He hasn’t said no to a radio interview, yet.
And, well aware of his place in the ever-present, and often contentious national dialogue about athletics’ place in the university setting, he’s initiated meeting with the UNM staff council and UNM faculty senate — something faculty senate president Pamela Pyle said has not happened with any coach that she could recall.
“There’s been a century-long division between academia and sport,” Weir said. “I think anyone pretending this is a UNM problem is naive. It’s an athletics problem. …
“Is one more important than the other? Academics probably is. Has the American model of sport in universities maybe gotten a little bit crazy? Yeah, it has. But it is what it is. We all have to work on a healthy relationship with each other. Whether you don’t like athletics or athletics doesn’t like academia for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter. We live together. We have to find healthy bonds where we can work together.”
On campus fans
Weir has the month of September mapped out. He is talking to every sorority or fraternity house that will listen. He plans to walk around campus. He wants to meet students, faculty and staff and get them back in the Pit.
As he did at NMSU last year when he also took over at a time that “basketball school” was facing the harsh reality of having an increasingly apathetic fan base, Weir tried to tackle the campus connection first.
He hopes to have an on-campus event this fall, maybe even holding the Howl in Johnson Gym so more campus dwellers can take part.
At a June 1 news conference, the coach tried to make his best pitch to win back the lost Lobo fan.
Some of those fans felt abandoned in recent years due to being outpriced. Some simply didn’t like the product on the court. Others just generally felt neglected because they weren’t able to donate enough money to feel welcome anymore under the once grand tent of Lobo basketball.
“I’m just a regular guy,” Weir said. “At the end of the day, I really want our team to feel that way. The city of Albuquerque is our team. We have to make sure we’re connecting and resonating with them.
“This really isn’t just about the suite holders. This really isn’t just about the people that give a lot of money. We need them. I’m very thankful for them. But that’s not Albuquerque and that’s not UNM. We’ve got to make sure that our brand and our team resonates with those people. We’re blue collar. We’re going to work our butts off. We’re going to give it every single thing we’ve got. … The last thing I want is for our team or our program to be thought of as entitled or better than anything or anyone. We’ve just got to put our boots on and go to work every day.”