Dazzling as they are, Frank Castillo’s coaching numbers don’t really tell the story of his career at La Cueva High School.
One of the most successful boys basketball coaches in New Mexico history, Castillo officially hung up his whistle Wednesday after 42 combined years at Cibola and La Cueva. He departs with 739 career victories, 11 championship-game appearances and five state titles. But perhaps a more fitting summation is this:
Since La Cueva opened in 1986, Frank Castillo is the only head boys basketball coach the school has ever had.
“I should write a book about La Cueva,” Castillo joked. “Nobody would read it, but I’m qualified to write one. I can remember my first day going into building with all the students coming from other places, and I remember the last day (Wednesday).
“Honestly, the time flew.”
Castillo, 68, spent a total of 46 years with Albuquerque Public Schools as a coach and teacher. He retired from teaching 10 years ago but continued to instruct a basketball class at the school and coach the Bears through last season.
Overall, Castillo amassed a 739-386 record in eight years at Cibola and 34 at La Cueva. He ranks sixth in career victories among New Mexico boys basketball coaches and third among those who earned all of their wins at New Mexico schools. Castillo’s five championships (1989, ’94, 2003, ’09, ’10) are tied for the state’s seventh-best total. He coached La Cueva to a state title in just its third year of existence and went 5-4 in finals with the Bears after twice leading Cibola to runner-up finishes.
In 2019, he was the national boys prep basketball coach of the year.
“I remember all the wins and losses in state finals,” Castillo said. “All those teams were special. But I guess 2009 and ’10 stand out because my son Ryan played for us and my son Matthew was an assistant coach. Winning back-to-back titles, those are great memories to be able to share with your sons.”
Uncertainty has enveloped the sports world in recent weeks with schools closed and games/practices canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Castillo said the shutdown had nothing to do with his decision to retire.
“I just felt it was time to step away, do other things and enjoy retirement,” he said. “It feels good. It’s the right decision.”
The decision caught some of his former players and coaching rivals off guard, largely because they have difficulty imagining La Cueva’s boys basketball without Castillo on the bench.
“The longevity of his career is amazing and what he did at La Cueva is special,” said A.J. Bramlett, who helped the Bears win state titles as a player and an assistant coach. “He always got teams ready to go and peaking at state-tournament time. That’s a skill not all coaches have. He’s one of the best I ever played for.”
Bramlett also helped Arizona win an NCAA men’s basketball championship and went on to play professionally. He credits Castillo for helping to make those experiences happen.
“He was tough on us,” Bramlett said, “but he prepared me. When I got to Arizona a lot of guys came in not knowing what weak-side help defense was. That didn’t happen if you played for Coach Castillo.”
Bryce Alford, who helped La Cueva reach the 2012 Class 6A final before moving on to a standout career at UCLA, expressed similar sentiments.
“Coach Castillo played a huge part in preparing me to play at the college level,” Alford said. “He helped me find my identity as a player. He continues to support me to this day as he’s helped me start my youth basketball camp at La Cueva. As good a coach as he was, he is a better person.”
Longtime coaching rivals also learned to respect Castillo’s preparation skills. Eldorado coach Roy Sanchez faced his La Cueva counterpart countless times over the years, including twice in state-championship games.
“His teams were never out of it,” Sanchez said. “I started going against him when I was playing at Los Alamos and he was coaching at Cibola. One thing I learned was you better not let up, or Frank’s teams would make you pay. They were well-prepared and never quit.”
Valley coach Joe Coleman agreed.
“They ran Frank’s system and ran it well,” he said. “He was never going to be outcoached. You had to execute and you had to make shots if you were going to have a chance to beat La Cueva.”
Like Sanchez, Coleman first got to know Castillo as a high school player. Coleman played at Valley.
“Frank was my coach for the North-South (all-star) game,” Coleman said. “He only let me play 6 minutes. I still don’t know what that was about.”
Castillo laughed at Coleman’s comment and said the relationships he’s built with players and coaches are a highlight of his career. Numerous former Bears came back to assist Castillo on the bench and several went on to become head coaches.
“A lot of former players have become friends,” Castillo said, “and that’s had a big impact on me. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to work with so many players and families over the years, and La Cueva’s been great to me. I’m lucky. My career’s been a blast.”
Geoff Grammer contributed to this report.