Don Flanagan may be leaving the University of New Mexico, but his legacy isn’t going anywhere.
Flanagan resigned Monday as the Lobo women’s basketball coach, but those who know him say his achievements won’t soon be forgotten.
The winningest basketball coach in UNM history, Flanagan’s illustrious 16-year run with the Lobos included eight NCAA Tournament appearances and six conference-tournament titles. Combined with his wildly triumphant high school coaching career at Eldorado, the Cambridge, Mass., native amassed a record of 741-181 in 32 years.
Former Lobo player Abbie Carlson (formerly Abbie Letz) said Flanagan’s consistent success has cemented his status as one of the state’s greats.
“You can’t go anywhere without someone mentioning Don Flanagan. You go to Eldorado, and he’s everywhere,” said Carlson, now the La Cueva High School girls basketball head coach. “Everyone would love to have half the career he’s had. He’s definitely a legend here in New Mexico, and it’s nice to say I knew him and played for him for four years.”
Carlson wore the cherry and silver from 2002-06, a stretch during which the Lobos were undefeated during home Mountain West Conference games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament each year.
Born in Cambridge, Flanagan was raised in New Hartford, Conn. He grew up with basketball, forming a team with his two brothers that would sometimes play three-on-three games against squads from the penitentiary.
Flanagan came west for college, playing basketball at Durango’s Fort Lewis College. Prior to taking over the girls program at Eldorado, he coached boys high school basketball at Coronado and Window Rock, Ariz.
Current Eldorado girls basketball coach Mike Huston said Flanagan, 67, has left an indelible mark. Huston — who was a boys assistant at Eldorado when Flanagan led the Eagle girls — said Flanagan’s reach extended well beyond the girls and young women he coached for the past three decades.
“He’s obviously meant a tremendous amount to me and my career and certainly to women’s basketball in general in the state of New Mexico,” Huston said. “The things he accomplished here at Eldorado — and certainly what he’s done at UNM — those things can’t go by unnoticed. They’ll be remembered for a long time coming. I just think he’s had a huge influence on a lot of different people.”
Although Flanagan had a year remaining on his contract, neither Carlson nor Huston said the coach’s resignation came as a shock. Carlson said she thought he would stay long enough to play in the renovated Pit, which opened this year.
Carlson’s former teammate Mandi Stovall, formerly Mandi Moore, said she was saddened but not surprised by the announcement, citing Flanagan’s myriad achievements and the level of commitment required to sustain such success.
“He’s done a great job, and coaching on the college level is very, very time consuming. It wears on your body with all the travel and all the recruiting and things like that,” said Stovall, who now lives in Texas but played for Flanagan from 2001-05 and spent a few subsequent years as the program’s director of operations. “I don’t guess it really surprises me just because he’s almost 70 years old, and he’s had a good ride.”
Despite having served in the Air Force, Flanagan famously avoided air travel as much as possible while coaching the Lobos. He frequently opted to drive to away contests.
Flanagan’s otherwise impressive career didn’t end on a high note. The Lobos went 13-18 this season, posting a losing record for only the second time in his tenure. Flanagan cited the recent decision of five Lobo freshmen to quit the team as the reason for his departure.
“I thought he was easy to play for,” Stovall said, “but there’s some that may disagree.”
Oddly, Flanagan sometimes could be accused of being too focused while coaching a game. Many times he would pull a player who may have been tired or in foul trouble, then forget to put them back into the lineup and criticize himself for it afterward.
Still, ex-Lobos like Carlson offered few complaints.
The former guard said Flanagan has a great sense of humor, loves to compete at anything — even outside of the basketball court — and turned what had been a lackluster program into a success by filling it with good people.
“He did a really good job and really made this program one-of-a-kind,” she said.
Through the years
1979-1995 (Eldorado High School)
Flanagan helmed one of the most dominant high school programs in any sport in state history, compiling an overall record of 401-13. The Eagles won 11 state championships and 15 district titles and had nine undefeated seasons. The Eagles’ 77-game winning streak from 1985-88 is a state record.
1995-96 (first season at New Mexico)
The Lobos won as many games in Flanagan’s first season — 14 — as they had in the previous four years combined.
New Mexico won the school’s first conference tournament title and made its first appearance at the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos finished the year 26-7, smashing the previous school record for wins in a season.
The Lobos compiled a 22-9 record and began a string of seven straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
New Mexico won the Mountain West Conference tournament and became the first UNM team to make the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
National leaders in both scoring defense and field goal-percentage defense, the Lobos swept the MWC regular-season and tournament titles.
New Mexico earned its first ranking in the Associated Press top-25 poll, charting at No. 23. UNM finished 26-5, claiming its second straight regular-season conference title and its third consecutive MWC tournament championship.
The Lobos were ranked for 16 straight weeks, going as high as No. 16. They finished 22-10, including the program’s first road win over a top-25 team, Texas, and first NCAA Tournament victory away from the Pit.
UNM won its fifth conference tournament title in six years and made the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight year.
Lobos finish with only their second losing record of Flanagan’s tenure, going 13-18, and failing to make the postseason.