LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Craig Neal didn’t come up much at Wednesday’s Mountain West preseason media conference at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
But the always outspoken Larry Eustachy, the Colorado State coach who remains close with the former University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach, made it clear that he believes his friend was in a no-win situation coaching the Lobos. Eustachy also had some strong words about what new UNM coach Paul Weir is getting himself into.
“I think he’s got the worst job in the country,” said Eustachy. “I just told him that. It doesn’t pay enough. If I got paid $5 million, I’d take all that crap that you get in Albuquerque, but he doesn’t make enough money. But that place is different, as you know. It’s a different beast.”
Eustachy has expressed similar sentiments, at least in recent years. He and his wife, who is also close friends with Janet Neal, have each made comments to the Journal critical of how Cullen Neal, the former Lobo and coach’s son, was treated by fans and media. They followed closely how the Neal era ended with fan discontent and media scrutiny.
But, prior to Neal taking the UNM head coaching job for the 2013-14 season, Eustachy had actually said the polar opposite of what he expressed Wednesday, once praising the Lobos gig as one of the best in the sport.
So what changed since then??
“(Weir’s) salary,” Eustachy dead-panned. “It’s a great job if you’re making $2 million, what they were going to give Steve Alford, but what they pay (Weir), no.”
Alford left UNM for UCLA in March 2013, 10 days after signing a term sheet on a new contract that, with incentives, would have paid him in the neighborhood of $1.8 million annually to coach the Lobos. Neal’s first contract was $750,000 per season and that increased to $950,000 annually for his next three.
Weir is set to make $625,000 in his first season of a six-season contract at UNM.
Eustachy said the fan interest is a double-edged sword for the Lobos job, making it still one of the best cities for college basketball when things are good and one of the worst when things aren’t.
“You might get one mulligan in that town, and that’s before you do the press conference,” he said. “You know how that town works. I think it’s great on one end. Name them? You’ve got Lexington, Kentucky, you’ve got Syracuse, N.Y., you’ve got Duke, and New Mexico is in that 10. … And the jobs you name that are going in that 10, those guys are making $8 million and Noodles was making ($950,000). To succeed there, with the expectations that come with it, it’s rare to survive that thing. You know that.
“Can you imagine Alford, if he was still making $2 million and he had a couple bad years there, what it would do? And it’s neat that they’re that much into it, but there’s got to be something else besides basketball in Albuquerque because it is a religion there.”
Eustachy acknowledged things could be easier for Weir because he has already been a head coach somewhere else, although that was just for one season at New Mexico State.
Weir, meanwhile, was going through his first MWC media day as the Lobos coach and acknowledged Eustachy’s comments to reporters weren’t isolated. He told Weir the same thing earlier in the day in Las Vegas.
The new Lobos coach said he, like UNM fans, has high expectations and he’s OK with the scrutiny and potential heat that come with that. Then again, Weir has not yet coached a game for the Lobos.
Weir also thought Eustachy’s comments might have been more media driven than a criticism of fan scrutiny.
“I think media has changed,” Weir said. “Larry actually brought it up among the coaches. I think media has maybe changed in general as far as how they report or what they’re looking to investigate. That may have changed this job. But I think inevitably that changes every job.
“… In the past (it was) ‘Let’s do a story on Sam’s childhood,’ or something like that. (Now) it’s ‘Let’s find something on Sam that didn’t go very well.’ I think Larry just feels as though the narrative of media in general has changed to a more dramatic or potentially negative perspective as opposed to how it used to be when it was just ‘feel good’ stories. I don’t know if that’s just a New Mexico problem. I think that’s maybe just media in general.”
Asked his opinion of the media coverage since he’s been head coach in Albuquerque, Weir smiled and said, “I just try and coach the basketball team.”