Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The end of the Paul Weir era as University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach seemed to grow into an inevitability in recent weeks.
Never mind the wildly challenging circumstances of being the first Lobo hoops team ever, and one of only two Division I men’s team in the country, to play this entire season outside its home state due to New Mexico’s public health order restrictions.
Still, the end, announced in a news release Friday at 8 p.m., left little in terms of details and plenty of questions about how the UNM Athletic Department, which the Journal reported earlier this month is projecting between a $12.4 million and $13.8 million deficit, is going to pay for yet another coaching buyout.
Saturday morning, UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez described the change atop the university’s highest-profile sports program – Weir will coach the team through the end of the March 10-13 Mountain West Conference tournament – as “a tough day, but also a special day.”
The future, he says, remains bright for Lobo basketball.
But those words were also spoken four years ago when former coach Craig Neal, who oversaw the start of the program’s current downward trajectory, was fired – also in an eleventh-hour decision that brought about questions of how his $1 million buyout would be paid for.
Weir, who is in the fourth year of a six-year contract and earning $775,000, will remain on salary through the end of the team’s season. His contract called for a $700,000 buyout: $350,000 for each remaining year on his contract. But in the separation agreement, Weir agreed to have that figure reduced to a $490,000 buyout, and UNM will pay $100,000 of the $275,000 Weir still owes New Mexico State University for breaking his contract there four years ago to take the Lobos job in 2017.
The $490,000 owed to Weir will be paid over two years – $245,000 a year – and Nuñez said it will be paid for entirely by “private” funds. He wouldn’t elaborate on what exactly that meant or from whom that money is coming other than to emphasize it won’t “put a burden on this university or our current budget.”
Nuñez added, “These are donors that have stepped up. The funds are in place. … We’re going to be accountable for everything we do.”
The Journal, which has reached out for comment from both Weir and his agent, Jason Charney, since Friday and not heard back, has asked UNM for a copy of the separation agreement.
A history of buyouts
Nuñez said he understands a coaching buyout at UNM is a touchy subject. For years, athletic department officials have insisted the firings of high-profile coaches would be paid entirely using athletic department funds, only to later have it revealed they were not.
Only one such buyout has happened on Nuñez’s watch – the firing a little more than a year ago of football coach Bob Davie, which came with an $800,000 golden parachute for the then-highest-paid public employee in the state.
Davie in 2011 had replaced Mike Locksley, who received a $1 million buyout.
Davie’s buyout, UNM says, has been handled within the budget of athletics.
When Locksley was fired, former athletic director Paul Krebs said the $750,000 owed to Locksley – $300,000 in the form of a contractual buyout and $450,000 owed as salary for the remainder of the contract year in which he was fired – would be covered by local boosters.
The Journal reported in December 2019 that $450,000 was covered by athletics and $300,000 was covered with the assistance of main campus funding.
Weir’s predecessor, Craig Neal, was paid $1 million over two years after he was fired.
When Neal was fired March 31, 2017, Krebs told the Journal, “The expectation is the buyout will be covered by athletics.”
Instead, the Journal discovered and reported in April 2018 that the buyout was actually being covered by funds from a main campus reserve account.
In December 2018, former deputy athletic director Brad Hutchins was let go and paid a $175,000 buyout. UNM confirmed to the Journal in 2019 that money was not paid by athletics.
Asked Saturday whether use of private funds for Weir’s buyout was required for UNM President Garnett Stokes to approve that agreement, Nuñez said it never got to that point.
“It never was a conversation because I didn’t let it be a conversation,” Nuñez said. “I wanted to make sure from the beginning they understood this was how I want to make it happen.
“Again, we’re fighting for everything we’re fighting for (in athletics). And we’ve got to be honest, and we’ve got to be realistic with everything. So for me to be able to do this, I need to know that we can do it the right way. And that, to me, this is the right way.”
NMSU still getting paid
When Weir left New Mexico State in April 2017 to take the Lobos job and its accompanying significant pay raise after his lone season coaching the Aggies to a 28-6 record and an NCAA Tournament berth, he had a buyout of his own.
Krebs, expecting criticism both of the buyout owed Neal and any potential buyout owed to his successor, was emphatic in saying that whoever took the job would do so with the understanding that UNM would not pay any portion of a buyout with the new coach’s employer.
Weir offered NMSU a $250,000 settlement for leaving, NMSU felt it was owed $500,000, and the two settled on $450,000 plus interest to be paid over seven years with a payment schedule.
While UNM did not pay Weir’s buyout; it included in his six-year contract an annual retention bonus that was converted in 2018 to a payment to NMSU.
Essentially, UNM agreed to send the $50,000 per year owed to Weir as a retention bonus to NMSU each May 1, which covered the buyout payment.
As part of Friday’s separation agreement, UNM agreed to continue to pay the next two $50,000 payments.
According to the payment schedule included in the settlement agreement, Weir would still owe $175,000 after that.