Let’s acknowledge it wouldn’t be fair to grade Lobo coach Paul Weir solely on this year’s dismal basketball season.
Weir, who has agreed to step down at the end of the year, and his Lobo men’s team (along with the UNM women and the New Mexico State University Aggies) had a hellish hoops season in exile due to the health restrictions imposed by the governor. Whether they were unduly harsh is debatable. Whether they were perhaps the most draconian in the nation really isn’t. They were.
The Lobos were banished from practicing or playing here at the Pit, roaming from city to city like hoops nomads, living in hotels and playing “home” games in places like the Rip Griffin Center in Lubbock. The physical and mental health toll (Lobo women’s coach Mike Bradbury likened it to incarceration) was palpable. Remember, these are young kids who have left their homes to play for a storied basketball program in one of the nation’s storied college hoops arenas (“A mile high and louder than hell”).
So no, it wouldn’t be fair to judge Weir based solely on this truly awful season where the Lobos at this point are 6-14 overall and 2-14 in Mountain West Conference play.
But it is fair to assess Weir’s overall performance as he winds up the fourth year of a six-year contract. He is 58-61 at UNM — a record that’s worse than it sounds when you consider some early-season cupcakes that dot the schedule.
Weir’s first year was his best. It’s been downhill since, including last year, when two of his most talented players had off-the-court run-ins with the criminal justice system that sidelined them permanently. Key players have bailed out. The recruiting cupboard looks bare. So it is reasonable for UNM to move on to new leadership before the hole gets any deeper in UNM’s marquee sport — even though it includes the bitter pill of yet another in a long line of coaching buyouts. This one involves paying Weir $490,000 over two years and using another $100,000 already set aside to help reduce the buyout Weir owed New Mexico State University when the Lobos lured him away for more money than he was making in Las Cruces.
Weir actually was owed $700,000 in buyout money under his UNM contract but agreed to take $490,000. Both sides have been publicly amicable, with Weir praising athletic director Eddie Nuñez and President Garnett Stokes and saying he believes this “is the perfect time for a transition in Lobo basketball.”
Nuñez says private money will be used for the buyout — something that was promised but didn’t happen in previous buyouts. While private, that money won’t come from a fundraising drive to pay off Weir. Rather, it is from donations to the Lobo Club from boosters who don’t object to using it to pay off Weir’s settlement. It will be transferred from the Lobo Club to a university account at the appropriate time.
And, of course, UNM would rather have had Weir succeed and used the $490,000 for other things.
Athletics swimming in cherry-red ink
Complicating all this is a flood of red ink in UNM athletics, the most recent chapter brought about largely by the COVID shutdown — and not long after the department had mostly wiped its slate clean when the state and UNM administration agreed to eliminate much of its prior accumulated deficit.
But with no basketball or football ticket sales, no concessions, and thus little to no money from events last year such as the state basketball tournament, UNM is predicting a shortfall of up to $13.8 million for the coming year. That includes a $1.6 million deficit the program started the fiscal year with (and which would have been worse had it not been for nearly $2 million in federal CARES Act money).
UNM isn’t alone. Colorado State University of the MWC was projecting an $18 million loss in sports revenue, and San Diego State was predicting a $12 million shortfall.
It will be incumbent on Nuñez and Stokes to — once again — put forth a plan to put the department on sound fiscal footing once and for all. Publicly. Nuñez says, and he’s right, that will require reexamination of the financial underpinnings of athletics at UNM. “We’re 75% dependent on self-generated funds, when many of our peers are in the 40% or 50% range.” (We don’t have big companies or billionaires who put their names on stadiums). That means more of the department’s $31 million budget would have to come from sources such as university subsidies, state appropriations and student fees.
All this is assuming the state wants to keep its flagship university competing in Division I athletics, something at least one regent has called into question, suggesting a drop to small-school status with robust intramural programs. That has not resonated with Lobo fans and has generated little traction.
And that brings us back to the subject of Weir and Lobo basketball. Nuñez says he will head up the search himself and not use a search firm. Good. That’s accepting accountability. He understands all too well that the next coach will have a heavy lift in generating excitement in a program that hasn’t been to a postseason tournament since the 2013-14 season. That means putting fans in the seats.
Finding someone with head coaching experience would seem to be a must — and that kind of person would need assurances that the Lobo athletics fiscal house can be put in order and on a path to long-term success. And, of course, no qualified candidate would take the job without some kind of buyout protection. Much as we hate them, it’s just how it works in college athletics.
A tall order? Perhaps. But the future of Lobo athletics to a large extent depends on getting this hire right and righting the fiscal ship.