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Grammer: Times have changed since Alford left the UNM Lobos

New Mexico coach Steve Alford raises the net to fans after beating San Diego State 68-59 in the Mountain West Conference championship NCAA college basketball game against New Mexico, Saturday, March 10, 2012, in Las Vegas, Nev. Those were happier times for Lobo fans and different times for Mountain West Conference basketball. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

A lot can happen between deciding not to mess with happy and getting the call from “the pinnacle of college basketball” that “changed the whole landscape.”

And even more has happened in the six years since Steve Alford went from proclaiming his long-term loyalty to the University of New Mexico to bolting for the storied history, and lavish paycheck, of UCLA basketball.

As Alford prepares for his introductory press conference Friday in Reno as the new Nevada basketball coach, and a return to the Mountain West Conference in which he won four-regular season titles and a pair of tourney titles, he should know things aren’t exactly the same as when he left.

Nowhere is that more evident than the program he left behind six years ago that is now trying desperately to recover from the dismal financial realities that partly started when Alford had the university’s regents, a former president and most of the town eating out of the palm of his hand.

While Alford’s landing back in the league is a soft one after his multi-million dollar firing by the Bruins, UNM’s past six years have been anything but comfortable.

First, let’s take a look at the landscape of the league in 2013 when Alford left.

Alford’s last regular-season Mountain West victory was in Reno on March 6, 2013, when a future NBA player named Tony Snell scored 25 points to lead UNM to a win over a Dave Carter-coached Wolf Pack team, 75-62. After a loss three days later at Air Force, the Lobos went on to win the MWC tournament, secure a final Top-10 Associated Press ranking in 2013 and earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The then-nine team Mountain West that season had five league teams invited to the Big Dance.

And how did Albuquerque respond to it all?

Seven times in March 2013, the Lobo basketball team appeared as the centerpiece story on page A1 of the Journal – not just the sports section, but on the front page. The renovated Pit was selling out, and thousands of fans flocked to the MWC tournament and to Salt Lake City for the NCAA Tournament.

With bonuses, Alford was already getting more than $1 million per season, and his new 10-year deal increased that significantly, easily making him the highest paid coach, and his staff the highest paid staff, in the MWC.

Things were good for Alford and the Lobos.

Then came Harvard.

And the UCLA call.

And Noodles.

And ticket price increases.

And Scotland.

And state investigations into finances.

And … you get the point.

The Lobos can no longer fund hoops in the ways that benefited Alford.

While he left as the league’s highest paid coach, by far, now Nevada, UNLV, San Diego State, Boise State and Colorado State all pay as much, or more, than UNM’s 39-year-old third year coach Paul Weir will earn this coming season. And all that’s before any potential restructuring of Craig Smith’s contract at Utah State after he won the league championship and coach of the year honors in his first season in Logan.

The Lobos haven’t played in any postseason tournament in five years now. The Craig Neal era brought an end to sellouts in the Pit. And while UNM still led the league this past season in average home attendance, ticket revenue doesn’t come close anymore to being able to make up for the shortcomings in football, which the school now claims turns a profit.

As for Alford, while he did in Westwood what he could never do in Albuquerque – reach the Sweet 16 – he was also fired midseason (after a loss to Liberty and former Lobo coach Ritchie McKay). He was never able to master the Pac-12, which is a shell of its former self, nearly as well as he did the MWC, which is also a shell of its former self.

Now he’s back coaching in a league that needs him to regain the spark he had six years ago.

And the Lobo program he left behind is still desperately trying to figure out how to regain the 2013 glory, just without the same sort of blank-check financial support UNM was willing to dish out when it was bending over backward to try and make certain its former coach wouldn’t mess with happy.

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