ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — UNM’s interim coach talks to current players, recruits
Craig Neal hasn’t slept much the past couple of days.
Since waking Saturday morning to the news of his longtime friend and colleague Steve Alford leaving the University of New Mexico basketball program to coach UCLA, Neal has received hundreds of text messages and calls — many of which he’s been unable to answer.
He’s also trying to juggle the pressure of being tasked to “maintain some stability” within the program as the interim head coach.
“I’m just trying to guide the program the way it was set up before Steve took the job at UCLA,” Neal said. “That’s making sure our players are taken care of and focused. Academically is the main concern, but also just answer any questions or issues that they may have.”
But dealing with issues relating to existing players is only part of the challenge. The pressure on Neal, more affectionately referred to by those who know him as “Noodles,” won’t let up anytime soon. The month of April is vital in terms of recruiting and doing so without a permanet head coach is a huge obstacle.
Aside from talking with current Lobos, Neal called or texted high school recruits and their families Saturday morning.
And that was before he met with UNM athletic director Paul Krebs. In that meeting, Neal was challenged to “maintain some stability” in the program while Krebs and deputy athletic director Tim Cass spearhead the search for a new coach.
“Everybody is solid right now,” Neal said Sunday night when asked about the status of all the recruiting targets of the Lobos. “We’re still recruiting the same kids we recruited and have a few new ones on our radar because of need, but we’re still doing the same thing right now we’ve always done.”
April 11 is a key date in the recruiting cycle for college programs. That is when coaches can again start making in-person recruiting visits to prospective athletes. Later in the month includes open evaluation periods when coaches watch club teams in several certified tournaments around the country.
UNM, which ended the regular season ranked No. 10 in the nation just two weeks ago and was boasting about having all five starters returning for the 2013-14 season, now has at least two scholarships open for the coming season. La Cueva senior Bryce Alford is following his father to UCLA and junior guard Demetrius Walker is currently off the team (a decision that will stick if Neal is named the permanent coach).
Junior guard Tony Snell last week declared he is entering the NBA Draft, but has not hired an agent. Someone close to Snell told the Journal he’d put the odds at “80/20 Tony returns” if Neal is retained.
Sophomore center Alex Kirk has said he would likely transfer if Neal is not hired. Sophomore point guard Hugh Greenwood, who is very close to the Alford family, is contemplating transferring or returning home to Australia to play professionally.
Still, Krebs said he can’t afford to rush a coaching decision if it damages the long-term health of the department’s most visible and profitable program.
Neal said recruits have all said they’re still interested in UNM, but all want to know the same thing.
“They want to know if I have a chance to get the job because we’ve established relationships with these kids and their families,” Neal said. “A lot of our kids are recruited on relationships we’ve all worked on for some time. That’s how it is in recruiting.”
Xavier Adams, a 6-5 guard from Texas who is the first verbal commitment to UNM for the class of 2014, told the Journal in a text message Sunday he’s still with the Lobos as long as Neal is on board.
“For now I’m still committed, but if coach Neal isn’t head coach I will be de-committing,” wrote Adams, who averaged 25.7 points and 13.6 rebounds a game as a junior at Alvarado High School.
Assistant coaches Duane Broussard and Drew Adams have helped maintain contact with existing recruits.
But the coaching carousel moves fast. Alford’s staff will include some of the current UNM staff, though none contacted Sunday would confirm they have decided to join Alford at UCLA.
Krebs said Sunday there is no specific timetable for his decision on a coach. He will be in Atlanta this weekend for the Final Four, annually a key time for ADs to interview prospective head coaches. Krebs didn’t say he would be interviewing any coaches in Atlanta and thus far has only publicly identified Neal as a candidate.
Neal, who has an open invitation from Alford to be the associate head coach at UCLA if he doesn’t get the UNM job he covets, said the challenges of running a program amidst uncertainty doesn’t discourage him.
“I know what my role is and I will do what I can to keep this thing going,” Neal said. “Steve did an excellent job setting up a blueprint for excellence and I’m just trying to stay the course, which I’ve been a part of for six years. I’m just trying to keep our guys united and realize what a great place this is and remind them why they came here. This is a great program and a prideful program that has great support. None of that has changed.”
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal