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UNM sports boss undaunted despite two tough years

UNM Director of Athletics Eddie Nuñez carries a bag of stuff into DeVargas Hall for Samantha Lambrecht as she moved in on Friday. Also helping move a TV is her father, Michael Lambrecht. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note: Eddie Nuñez has taken plenty of flak since coming from Louisiana State University to run UNM athletics. He sat down to talk about the challenges he’s faced and why he thinks things are better.

Nearly two years into his tenure as the 13th athletic director in University of New Mexico history, the honeymoon period for Eddie Nuñez isn’t over yet.

That’s because it never really began.

His predecessor had “retired” under a cloud (and has since been indicted on felony charges) and the Athletics Department was mired in red ink.

Then, within a couple of months of his appointment in August 2017 the department was slammed by then-State Auditor Tim Keller in a report that found an “ungovernable ball of organizations” that improperly mixed public and private money and handed out free donor perks to people who weren’t actually donors.

It concluded that financial mismanagement could have cost UNM athletics hundreds of thousands of dollars in just the past three years.

Nuñez keeps mementos of his years of sports achievements in his office. (Kent Walz/Albuquerque Journal)

Forget that both men’s basketball and football have struggled the last two years. Nuñez really roiled a hornet’s nest when he recommended that the cash-strapped department cut men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and beach volleyball – a proposal backed by President Garnett Stokes, herself a newcomer, and ultimately the regents.

Angry would understate the reaction that put Nuñez and his boss on the receiving end of criticism from ardent supporters of the respective sports all the way to the governor-elect and a key legislative appropriator.

And it hasn’t completely subsided. There are still bitter undercurrents in some quarters where critics of the cuts would love to see Nuñez – and for that matter Stokes – bid adios to Lobo Land.

But one of the characteristics that best defines Eduardo Nuñez, a former architecture student and the son of Cuban refugees from the Castro regime, is chin up and look for the silver lining.

“Anybody who knows me will tell you I’m a very positive person,” he said. “And regardless how difficult the challenges are, I still try to find the best outcome.”

Refugees

That attitude toward life is in the family DNA.

Nuñez’s parents came to America separately in the late 1960s. They settled in Miami, where they eventually met and married.

“My grandfather was in banking and Castro came in and said these (banks) are mine now. My grandfather was incarcerated because he wasn’t willing to simply give up his business. He sent his family to Miami, where they basically had to start from scratch.”

It was a similar story on his mother’s side.

“Her grandfather was in the sugar cane business. And since he wasn’t receptive to Castro’s demands he also was incarcerated. So basically both families came here with nothing.”

Eddie Nuñez drives toward the basket as a player for the University of Florida. (Courtesy of Eddie Nuñez)

Nuñez said he was able to see his parents and grandparents – both grandfathers ultimately came to the U.S. after being released from prison in Cuba – start their own businesses and make new lives. All became naturalized citizens.

“They understood the opportunity to be in such a wonderful country. They came with nothing. My dad loved being a citizen. He truly believed in this country and understood the opportunities that were available if you were able to get after it.”

Nuñez said it showed him and his brother the importance of a strong work ethic, being true to your word and being accountable.

“When I grew up, that’s what it was about.”

Basketball r é sum é

Nuñez, who at 6-foot-4 cuts an athletic figure, played college basketball but admits he wasn’t the most talented player. His approach was hard-nosed work ethic.

He played at talent-laden Miami Senior High and ended up getting a scholarship to Miami Dade Junior College.

“I was the consummate ‘let’s get after it’ guy. I knew I could play but understood the importance of being part of a team.”

From there he ended up at the University of Florida, where he was a redshirt his first year. Then a coaching change saw Lon Kruger leave and Billy Donovan – who now coaches the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA – take over.

Nuñez says he knew Donovan, who had recruited some of his former high school teammates, and Donovan asked him to stay and walk on.

“That’s what I did, and the following year I earned a scholarship.”

Nuñez didn’t play much but stayed on as a graduate assistant, and the following year Florida went to the Sweet 16.

In addition to Donovan and Kruger, Nuñez lists big name coaches Anthony Grant (Dayton) and Frank Martin (South Carolina) as people who coached him.

Difficult cuts

Nuñez still believes cutting some UNM sports programs was the right decision, given the financial challenges and issues complying with Title IX, which has rules ensuring equal opportunity for women.

UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez takes a quick cellphone photograph during a Lobo football game last season.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been a part of. But I will say this: Every decision I make and have made are with my values, which are integrity, accountability and making sure we do our diligence and hard work.

“I owed it to everybody involved to do everything I could possibly do. Pick up every rock. So my recommendation still today, for the benefit of this institution and for the overall success and sustainability … it was the correct decision.

“Do I like it? No. To look at those kids in the face and tell them their program was going to be discontinued was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I understand their frustration and questioning. I understand our fans’ questioning.”

Stokes concurred with the recommendation and publicly defended it.

“She’s been unbelievable,” Nuñez said. “Here is a president who came in and was tasked with these challenges … and the reality is she didn’t hire me.

“But she’s been one of the biggest advocates for athletics as a whole and for making sure we overcommunicate with the campus on what we are doing with athletics and how we’re doing it to make it right.”

Academic switch

Nuñez earned a master’s in sports administration, but his college academic career didn’t start down that path.

“When I got to college I was very good at architecture and had gone to architecture camps in high school. So when I got to Miami Dade that’s what I studied and left with an associate degree.”

The demands of architecture and Division 1 basketball proved too much to juggle at the University of Florida so he switched to sports management, starting over with a new major.

After getting his master’s, Nuñez took a job as the basketball administrative assistant at Marquette University in Milwaukee, working for Tom Crean.

It was a big deal for a kid raised in Miami to get in the car and head north to Wisconsin. Nuñez thought he wanted to be a coach, and his duties included hands-on coaching and breaking down video.

But he had done some administrative work at Florida and decided to take a shot at a position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He was offered a job as director of game management.

“I still remember walking to the car and thinking ‘I’m all in … this is what I’m doing.'”

Soon he was overseeing construction projects because of his architecture background.

Nuñez said he had opportunities to go back into coaching, but his course was set. “I took the ball and never looked back.”

From Vanderbilt, Nuñez went to Louisiana State University, where he spent 14 years in seven different positions, including marketing and promotions, and oversaw $500 million in projects.

Then-LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said UNM had hired a “rising star” when Interim President Chaouki Abdallah announced Nuñez’ appointment here.

“We were looking for a leader who is dedicated to academic excellence, strong ethics, careful financial management and community engagement,” Abdallah said. “The committee and I agreed that Eddie is the right person for this key position at UNM.”

Family time

Vanderbilt is where Nuñez met his wife, Jane.

“She was working in development and I had to borrow a golf cart from her department,” Nuñez said. “She gave me a set of keys and read me the riot act about making sure it was brought back in tiptop shape. I said, ‘yes ma’am. I hear you.’

“Then on Saturday I go to pick up the cart about 5:30 a.m. because there was a football game and realize she had not only given me the wrong key but it was padlocked. On Monday I went back personally. She came out and asked if everything worked out. I told her the golf cart was right where it had been but that next time instead of giving me such a hard time maybe she could give me the right keys.”

They married three years later and have two daughters, Elizabeth, 10, and Anna, 8.

Asked about hobbies, Nuñez puts spending time with his family and reading at the top of the list.

But he’s also serious about his workouts. Some days he runs the steps at Dreamstyle Stadium. Several days a week he gets up at 4:30 or 5 to put in an hour of cardio and weights.

“I want to get home in time to take the girls to school. That’s time with them and honestly that’s the biggest thing for me.”

Surprises

So did Nuñez know what he was getting into when he left LSU for the University of New Mexico? Does he think he’s had a target on his back almost from the start?

“When I first arrived, I saw the opportunities and still do. But I didn’t understand all the complexities that UNM was going through.”

“I knew the position was high profile and the importance of my role at UNM and in the community. Then things started coming out: investigations, mismanagement of money, audits. What was frustrating for me was that at the same time I was trying to understand my coaches, my staff and get to know the community and build trust.”

“It was a challenging time,” says Nuñez, who was hired at an initial base salary of $300,000 annually. “So yes, I felt at times there was a target.”

Nuñez is proud of what he says are the department’s accomplishments here and hands out fact sheets to support that point. They range from academic accomplishments by athletes to budget and Title IX fixes.

He says his department has trimmed spending, financial controls are now in place, negative audit findings have been addressed and there is a long-term plan for a balanced budget.

“We have worked our tails off to let people know we are about the community. We are about the state. We are part of the university, so everything we do is to build the trust for this university.”

Expectations

At the end of the day, Nuñez knows that success is tied to “Ws” and “Ls.” You can only have so many 3-9 seasons and still put fans in the seats.

“I approach everything with the understanding we are here to provide our student athletes every resource and opportunity to be successful. I also expect our coaches to be able to compete at the highest level.

“So wins and losses are important, as much as we would all like to say otherwise. Not everybody is Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney (Clemson) or Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). But there are a lot of coaches out there winning at a high level and accomplishing a lot that you never hear about. The wins and losses are just as important here.”

And what kind of expectations are reasonable for Lobos fans?

“First, you’ve got to see progress in every aspect of the program, and I have to make sure the culture is changing in the right way. That the kids associated with the program are representing us the right way.

“When you look at wins and losses, every sport is different. For me, should Lobo basketball be in the NCAA tourney? Absolutely. Do I feel like our football team should be competing for a bowl game? Yes.

“But I also understand there are things that need to happen for us to achieve those goals. I’m not a person who is going to sit down with a coach and say if you don’t have 20 wins, you’re gone tomorrow. I need to understand the values of that coach are the same as our institutional values and the opportunity for us to move forward and build our programs in the right way are there.”

Challenges and criticism notwithstanding, Nuñez is still brimming with enthusiasm and optimism about UNM athletics. True to his philosophy, he’s taken the ball and run with it.

Time will tell whether he can push it across the goal line.

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