Dave Pilipovich walked around the Pit on Thursday and there was something missing.
The former Air Force basketball coach had been in the historic University of New Mexico basketball arena many times, having coached the Mountain West rival Falcons since 2007 — the past eight as head coach.
Then it hit him.
“It was the first time I’ve been in there when my stomach wasn’t in knots,” Pilipovich said. “I was able to enjoy it.”
It’s not hard to understand why.
Pilipovich, 56, this week accepted a position with the Lobo men’s basketball team — replacing the recently departed Craig Snow as special assistant to head coach Paul Weir. The school confirmed the hire to the Journal on Friday.
Though contract terms have not yet been released beyond that it’s a one-year deal, no money to the salary pool for Lobo basketball has been added. Snow, who left for a medical sales position in El Paso just last week, was making $85,000 annually.
Pilipovich was fired by Air Force in March with two years remaining on his contract.
“It’s been a weird year, right?” Pilipovich joked, before recalling the night in mid-March he was at a Colorado Avalanche NHL game with some friends and Air Force football coaches.
It was two days after he was fired and during the game, the news broke about the NBA shutting down its season — essentially starting an avalanche of its own of sports shutdowns due to novel coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
“We were there watching the game and all that then everything shuts down and I say my wife, you know, hopefully by June, we’ll all be back up and running again,” Pilipovich said. “Well, we’re October 22 and we still really aren’t up and running again. So the job market was really, really slow, obviously, not much at all. But more than anything, I needed rest. After (coaching Air Force) I was just really, really worn out. You put everything into it, and I loved it. Everything into it. We just needed some time.”
Whether he would have moved on to another coaching job this soon or not in a normal year is unclear, but the way things lined up with the UNM opportunity seemed to make perfect sense. While he has a place in Albuquerque now, he and his wife Kelly still have their home in Colorado Springs just a 5 1/2-hour drive away. As a special assistant to the head coach, he’s not facing the same level of demands as a head coach, but as he said, he gets the benefit of learning from a Lobos staff full of current (Weir) or former head coaches (Dan McHale, Scott Padgett and Ralph Davis).
As the oldest person on staff, Pilipovich’s experience will obviously be relied on heavily, as well.
And, of course, the familiarity and belief in what the Lobo program still represents to him in the Mountain West was a big factor.
“I never won a game in the Pit, so I hope that’ll change,” Pilipovich said, before making clear based on his familiarity with the league that the Lobos brand, despite some lean years relative to what the program had about a decade ago, is still very much capable of returning to prominence.
“First of all, I want to thank (Weir) for this great opportunity and I’m so appreciate to him and the administration for allowing me to be a part of Lobo basketball,” Pilipovich said. ” … You’ve got a few programs in the Mountain West that are championship programs. And this is one of them. In Paul’s first year (2017-18) they went to the Mountain West Conference championship game just a few years ago. And you walk down the hallway you see about the championship teams and the banners and it’s a neat place. And from coaching and competing against (Weir), I’m excited about what he’s doing with a great program here. And I look forward to helping him in any way that I can.”
Pilipovich posted a 110-151 record at Air Force. His contract terms at the Academy were not public, other than he had two years remaining. He was at the helm for all three of the program’s wins over ranked opponents, including over No. 12 UNM on March 9, 2013 — a Lobos squad that included three players who later made it to the NBA. And four of AFA’s six all-time MWC tournament wins were with him as head coach.
“We did it right,” Pilipovich said after his firing from the Academy in March, as reported by the Colorado Springs Gazette.”Never had an investigation of our program or anything like that. We had great young men. We did it right, just didn’t win enough games, I guess.”
Wildly popular around the league and with fellow coaches, Pilipovich never used the limitations of coaching at a service academy — no athletic scholarships to offer and basketball never being the No. 1 priority for any of his players — as an excuse, but rather described the experience as an honor.
Always in the running for best interview at the annual MWC preseason media day event, the self-deprecating Pilipovich never missed an opportunity to brag to media from other markets around the league about the non-basketball accomplishments of his players.
In a podcast interview with the Journal in January, Pilipovich did the same.
“The quality of the kids we have, they’re really good,” Pilipovich said. “They’re really smart just to get in here. I could never get in here. They are so smart. The classes they take. The discipline. The 6 a.m. wakeup calls. The uniform of the day. The marching to lunch. … They’re wired differently.”