LAS VEGAS, Nev. — There’s been no puff of smoke yet from atop the Pit.
But the search for the next coach of Lobo basketball did take major strides on Saturday — namely in the form of athletic director Eddie Nuñez and deputy AD David Williams meeting in Chicago for the first time in person with two candidates on Saturday. At least one additional candidate is also expected to be interviewed, though the Journal has not confirmed where or when.
The three candidates believed to be getting in-person interviews are:
• Richard Pitino, the 38-year-old coach at Minnesota who is expected to part ways soon with the Big Ten school after eight seasons,
• Kyle Keller, the 53-year-old coach at Stephen F. Austin coach who has also been a junior college head coach and longtime Big 12 and SEC assistant and
• Tim Miles, the 54-year-old former coach at Nebraska of the Big Ten and in the Mountain West at Colorado State. Two of his two longtime assistant coaches have earned MWC Media Poll Coach of the Year honors in the past three seasons in Utah State’s Craig Smith and CSU’s Niko Medved.
Neither Nuñez nor Williams — the two working directly on the search — would confirm names or where the interviews on Saturday took place, but the Journal has independently confirmed the information, some of which has been widely circulated on social media.
Williams did tell the Journal in a phone interview on Saturday, “The job has not been offered to anybody. We are still having discussions with candidates.”
It is not clear if there are other candidates Nuñez plans to interview — either this weekend or any other time.
The plan, Nuñez told the Journal this past week in Las Vegas, Nevada, while attending the Mountain West tournament, was to wrap within week and find the successor to replace Paul Weir, who agreed to a buyout and was dismissed after four seasons running the program.
The next coach will be offered a compensation package in the range of $4.5 million over six seasons — similar to what Weir was making this past season at $775,000 annually. But, Nuñez has said, the contract may need to be “creative” in how it is crafted to help avoid further straining the ongoing financial struggles of an athletics department that the Journal has reported is projecting a current fiscal year shortfall of between $12.4 million and $13.8 million.
Creative contracting could mean a back-loaded contract that pays significantly more in the later years of the deal, one that may include incentive bonuses not currently offered at UNM or other details.
While no offer had been made as of Saturday night, the Journal confirmed all financial terms have been relayed to each potential candidate.
Here’s a little more on the three men we know for now are getting interviews by UNM:
The son of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, Richard has a 159-137 career coaching record in nine seasons — 18-14 in one season at Florida International in 2012-13 and 141-123 at Minnesota the past eight seasons, including two NCAA Tournament appearances, an NIT championship and a 14-15 record this past season.
Minnesota hasn’t fired him, but he is expected to part ways with the school.
In his contract, which pays $2 million in base salary each season, he is required to attempt to find comparable work to get the $1.75 million buyout owed to him. While the contract states he would be paid that money in installments over the length of the contract term — his deal runs through April 2024 — settlement agreements with coaches usually amend buyout terms. That was the case late last month with UNM, which owes $590,000 for parting ways with Weir ($490,000 to Weir and $100,000 to New Mexico State University as part of a buyout payment plan dating back to 2017 when Weir was hired away from the in-state rival).
Current Lobo assistant Dan McHale, the only staffer with a multi-year contract that runs beyond this season, was Richard Pitino’s assistant at Minnesota from 2013- 2015. Fellow UNM assistant Scott Padgett was recruited to play for Kentucky by Rick Pitino and has also coached in the past in deep Pitino coaching tree.
That tree also has branches that include Billy Donovan, the current Chicago Bulls coach who coached Nuñez at Florida and was also a longtime Rick Pitino assistant.
Keller is the 2020 Southland Conference Coach of the Year and has a 104-46 record coaching the Lumberjacks, which includes a 2017 NCAA Tournament appearance. SFA went 16-5 this season, Keller’s fifth, and 12-3 in league play.
Though not linked to the scandal, Keller’s team was not eligible for the postseason this year — thus his current availability to interview — after the NCAA found errors in how players in football, men’s basketball and baseball were certified eligible at the school.
Keller coached Manzano High standout T.J. Holyfield to All-Southland Conference team seasons in his three season from 2015-18 before Holyfield played his final season at Texas Tech.
In addition to his team’s NCAA Tournament berth, the Lumberjacks under Keller beat No. 1 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 26, 2019, ending the Blue Devils’ 150-game non-conference home win streak.
USA Today indicates Keller has an annual base salary of $400,000 this season.
He’s also been head coach at Tyler (Junior) College in Texas and was a longtime assistant at Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
Most familiar with the UNM and the Mountain West, Miles has been out of coaching the past two seasons living off a hefty buyout he received when fired at Nebraska after the 2019 season.
In the Mountain West, he rebuilt CSU from an 0-16 league record his first season in 2007-08 to an NCAA Tournament team in 2011-12 that led to his getting hired by the Big Ten’s Nebraska. His successor at CSU, Larry Eustachy, led a team with five starters Miles recruited to the 2013 NCAA Tournament as well.
Miles took over a last-place Nebraska team in 2012-13 and his Huskers never finished last in the league, though they’ve gone back to finishing last the past two seasons since he left.
A report after Miles was fired at Nebraska indicated his $2.5 million buyout included monthly payments through this month, which would have been when his contract expired.
Miles had a 71-88 Mountain West record in five seasons and went 116-114 in seven seasons at Nebraska, including one NCAA Tournament appearance and two NITs.
Two longtime assistants of Miles in the Mountain West — Utah State’s Craig Smith and Colorado State’s Niko Medved — are finding great success in recent years in the league, showing the formula the Miles coaching tree has seems to have some success in the league.
He also has past ties with Williams at North Dakota State University and has made no secret about his fondness for the Mountain West and a potential return to the league.