Sweet & sour - Albuquerque Journal

Sweet & sour

Ritchie McKay enjoyed some memorable wins in his five seasons coaching the Lobos, but road struggles and dwindling attendance did him in. (Journal File)
Ritchie McKay enjoyed some memorable wins in his five seasons coaching the Lobos, but road struggles and dwindling attendance did him in. (Journal File)

McKay’s tenure included one shining season, a tragic loss and plenty of empty seats, but UNM’s cupboard was left full

His entrance through the doors of Lobo men’s basketball shocked nearly everyone.

His exit surprised virtually no one.

In the five years between, Ritchie McKay lived a lifetime of emotions.

From 2002 to 2007, McKay’s Lobos ran college basketball’s gamut.

There were extremely high notes, and notes so low that they fell off the scale.

And there were situations very few coaches ever faced.

“When I first got the job, it was such a sprint to try and build a program that my dad had loved so much,” McKay says, referring to his late father, Joe McKay – who played for the Lobos from 1961-63. “I had the privilege of working with some great players. Some great people.

“I still think of the NCAA Tournament run, and what a great group of players we had. … It was a great place to coach.

“I wouldn’t trade it. Though my time ended, probably not the way I would have liked,” he continues with a chuckle, “I don’t have any regrets.”

McKay, these days the associate head coach at Virginia, took over a UNM program in disarray in 2002. He led it to the NCAA Tournament in his third year, coached one of the school’s greatest-ever players and had teams comprised of stand-up, high-character kids for three years.

But that one great season – 2004-05 – was his only one with a winning league record. The fanatic Lobo fan base never quite seemed to embrace the Indianapolis native. He took chances on some risky character players his last two years, and his final season was one of the most turbulent in school history.

Off the court, McKay had to deal with the suicide of one player and the attempted suicide of another.

But McKay held his head high throughout, never wavering from his Christian beliefs and the way he wanted to run a program.

“He was always under control,” says UNM regent president Jack Fortner, then the regent’s vice president. “He was a hard worker, had a great staff and had to start all over after (ex-Lobo coach Fran) Fraschilla. Fraschilla was unable to manage people, and we needed someone to bring some stability to the program, and Ritchie did that.

“I was saddened to see him go. You had to admire the way he led his personal life. Unfortunately in this arena, big-time college sports, you’ve still got to win. And he couldn’t get the wins on the road.”

Starting over

McKay jumps in front of his players for a celebratory postgame photo after UNM defeated Utah in the 2005 Mountain West Conference tournament championship game. (Associated Press File)
McKay jumps in front of his players for a celebratory postgame photo after UNM defeated Utah in the 2005 Mountain West Conference tournament championship game. (Associated Press File)

Fraschilla got the boot after a 96-62 loss to Minnesota in the 2002 NIT, ending his combustible three-year stint.

UNM athletic director Rudy Davalos acknowledged he would interview McKay, who had just finished his second year at Oregon State, while the two were in Atlanta for the Final Four. Meanwhile, a number of other names surfaced, including former NBA coach Tim Floyd, Creighton’s Dana Altman, Southern Cal’s Henry Bibby and Southern Illinois’ Bruce Weber. Earlier, UC Santa Barbara’s Bob Williams pulled his name out of the hat.

But all those names were brushed out of the public eye when national news broke that Arizona’s State’s Rob Evans was offered the job. Evans, a Hobbs native and New Mexico State graduate, was national coach of the year at Mississippi in 1997.

New Mexico was buzzing, and Lobo fans went to bed late on the night of March 28 thinking they would have their new coach by morning.

They did.

At 11:30 p.m. on March 28 – 1:30 a.m. in Atlanta – Davalos held a teleconference to announce he hired McKay.

“I think Rob would have done a good job,” Davalos recently said. “A Phoenix paper called me and said we offered him $800,000, and that’s not true. We didn’t have that kind of money.

“What happened with Fran is we had really bad player unrest. Players felt they weren’t treated properly. We wanted a coach to come in and soothe the wounds of the players.”

The job was one McKay coveted. He said he grew up a Lobo fan because his father played for UNM. He had his dad’s Lobo letterman’s jacket in a glass case in his new office.

McKay, then 37, had been a head coach for six seasons, two each at Portland State, Colorado State and Oregon State. He had a career record of 83-89.

He knew he had to rebuild, and talked about getting it done with character players and discipline.

It was more than talk. Standout post Patrick Dennehy walked off the floor during McKay’s first practice that spring, and the coach dismissed him for good.

Just two months earlier, Fraschilla failed to discipline Dennehy for arguing with teammates, then walking off the floor and into the locker room with three minutes left in a game.

In 2002, Dennehy transferred to Baylor under former Lobo coach Dave Bliss. A year later he was shot dead by a teammate, which ignited a scandal that ran Bliss out of coaching.

Dennehy would have been one of the few experienced players on McKay’s first Lobo team, which soon became the Ruben Douglas Show. The senior guard led the nation in scoring (28.0 points per game), but UNM struggled to a 10-18 record and 4-10 in the Mountain West Conference.

“Ritchie came in with a different mentality and we had a lot of team camaraderie that year,” Douglas said. “He made us be a family, which is good, but on the other hand, we just didn’t have enough talent. If Ritchie would have come with some of the players we had before, or maybe brought in some other guys who were going to do things the correct way, we probably would have had a lot of success.”

The Lobos’ 18 losses, however, were nothing compared to the loss they were about to suffer.

Tragic season

McKay, left, and trainer David Smith accompany Danny Granger as he leaves the court with an injury in 2005. Granger missed three games, all Lobo losses. (Associated Press File)
McKay, left, and trainer David Smith accompany Danny Granger as he leaves the court with an injury in 2005. Granger missed three games, all Lobo losses. (Associated Press File)

UNM was picked to finish seventh out of eight teams in the MWC in 2003-04. But those around the program knew that come December, transfers Danny Granger and Troy DeVries would be eligible and likely make New Mexico a contender.

The Lobos also had another transfer, 6-foot-10 sharp-shooter Billy Feeney, who sat out the previous season as a redshirt. He would have been eligible from the get-go that year, and the gregarious sophomore was penciled in as a starter.

On Aug. 27, 2003, Feeney hanged himself on a light post in downtown Albuquerque.

“Personally, that – behind the loss of my own father – was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through,” McKay says. “I loved Billy. Anytime you lose someone as a family member, it’s difficult. Only those who experienced it can sympathize with the pain of that loss.”

Feeney was buried in his native Boulder, Colo., the following week, and his Lobo teammates served as pallbearers.

Granger, who wept openly on the casket that day, talked about Feeney when he became a first-round NBA Draft pick in 2005.

“I was thinking about Billy,” he told the Journal , his eyes swelling with tears, after hearing his name called by the Indiana Pacers as the 17th overall pick that June. “I thought about him all night, how much I wish he could have been here.”

Feeney’s memory motivated the Lobos that 2003-04 season. But it probably triggered other issues as well.

In December of 2003, starting sophomore guard Mark Walters was hospitalized after overdosing on medications. Two years later, Walters admitted he, too, tried to commit suicide.

“(Billy’s loss) really hit the whole team hard that season,” McKay says. “Danny was wearing Billy’s clothes. Mark Walters and Billy, they were boys. But I thought the administration did a great job of providing support and counseling. In some ways, it knitted the group closer together. It redirects your purpose of making peoples’ lives better.”

On the court, the Lobos were 3-3 in late December and lost two at home.

But Granger and DeVries became eligible, and New Mexico won six of seven, with the only loss at sixth-ranked Wake Forest, led by future NBA superstar Chris Paul.

The Lobos finished 14-14 and 5-9 in the MWC, but Granger led the league in scoring, DeVries shot 44.6 percent from 3-point range and five of the team’s top six players were returning.

The groundwork had been laid for something special.

Talent prevails

Granger, DeVries and high-flying wing Alfred Neale were senior returning starters in 2004-05. David Chiotti, who had become one of the league’s top big men, and Walters were starting juniors. The freshman class included future Lobo standouts Tony Danridge, Darren Prentice and Chad Toppert as well as Bambale Osby, who later transferred and became a starting post at Maryland.

The Lobos rolled to a 10-1 start with the only loss coming at home to Paul and fifth-ranked Wake Forest.

New Mexico won its next four, including its league opener against Wyoming to go 14-2. But during the victory, Granger, a future NBA All-Star, suffered a torn lateral meniscus and played just 12 minutes. He missed the next three games at Air Force, Utah and BYU, and the Lobos lost all three.

“I really thought that was one of the best teams that’s ever played here,” Davalos said. “Had Granger not gotten injured, I don’t think they would have lost any of those three games.”

After Granger’s return, the Lobos lost just once in their next 13 games. The 6-foot-8 native of Metairie, La., dominated the league and led victories over nationally ranked Utah and future NBA No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut. The second of those two meetings was in the MWC title game, which sent the Lobos to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

“I’d put that starting five up against anybody in Lobo history,” says Scott Didrickson, an assistant coach that year and a current UNM radio analyst.

“We were probably a Danny Granger knee injury away from being a 30-win team and a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I’m biased, I get that. But it was a special team and they were great guys. Every coach dreams of having a team like that.”

The Lobos, however, weren’t a No. 3 seed. Despite their 26-6 record and MWC tournament title, they were only a 12 seed.

UNM faced a Villanova team that was better than its No. 5 seed and the Wildcats raced to a 34-11 halftime lead. The Lobos roared back to within 52-47 in the final minute of the game, but missed two straight shots and Villanova went on to win 55-47.

How soon they forget

McKay holds his head during a 2006 loss at New Mexico State. His UNM teams consistently struggled outside the Pit. (Associated Press File)
McKay holds his head during a 2006 loss at New Mexico State. His UNM teams consistently struggled outside the Pit. (Associated Press File)

Without Granger, DeVries and Neale, 2005-06 was a struggle.

On the court and in the stands.

The Lobos were 17-13 overall, 8-8 in the MWC and attendance dropped. UNM was in the top 10 in national attendance for 35 of 36 seasons (11th in 1991-92) prior to McKay’s arrival, but had not been in it since. The 2005-06 official average attendance was 13,387 – still impressive for most programs – but the lowest at UNM since 1971-72, before the Pit’s expansion.

Meanwhile, UNM was 2-11 outside the Pit.

Just one year removed from the NCAA Tournament, there was enormous grumbling from fans heading into 2006-07.

Talent-wise, however, it looked like the Lobos could make a title run. Kansas’ J.R. Giddens – a future NBA first-round pick – and Aaron Johnson – who led the Big Ten in rebounding while at Penn State – became eligible at UNM after sitting out a year as transfers.

Junior guards Danridge and Prentice and sophomore post Daniel Faris were all hitting their strides, junior-college transfer Jamaal Smith took over as point guard, 3-point bombing Toppert was a sophomore, and future Lobo star Roman Martinez entered the program as a freshman.

But athletic director Paul Krebs also entered the picture, replacing the retired Davalos. He kept a close eye on results and crowds.

The Lobos won eight of their first 10, but all eight were in the Pit and attendance was in free fall.

On Dec. 19, UNM beat Charleston Southern in front of an announced 10,502 during a snowstorm.

“(I’m) happy about the 10,502 who showed up,” McKay said in jest.

McKay was jokingly asked if he flunked math.

“I went to Seattle Pacific,” he said with a grin.

Five members of the media did a head count of the fans in the stands. The total – 1,485.

A week later, UNM finally won a game outside the Pit, shocking then eighth-ranked Wichita State in a tournament in Las Vegas, Nev. The recent criticism had raised the team’s collective dander.

“We had to prove stuff to people, show you guys that we’re not a joke,” Giddens said. “You’ve got your own town kicking you and people ain’t showing up for the games, that hurts.”

But the Lobos were hammered the next night by Kansas State in the title game of the four-team event.

“We had some great talent on that team,” Didrickson says. “But we went from having so many good kids that we loved coaching to, well, we started to take some fliers on some kids. Character-wise and chemistry-wise, it went the wrong way.”

Final straws

Empty seats became a major issue for Lobo men’s basketball during the 2006-07 season. The low point was a December home game against Charleston Southern played during a snowstorm. Media members counted fewer than 1,500 fans in the Pit stands. (Journal File)
Empty seats became a major issue for Lobo men’s basketball during the 2006-07 season. The low point was a December home game against Charleston Southern played during a snowstorm. Media members counted fewer than 1,500 fans in the Pit stands. (Journal File)

Giddens and Johnson – who dubbed themselves Superman and Batman – came to UNM with baggage. Giddens had been stabbed after allegedly starting a fight outside a bar in Lawrence, Kan.

Johnson had been in a brawl with Penn State teammates at his on-campus apartment. Police were called to the scene, but no arrests were made.

However, Johnson was arrested during his redshirt season at UNM in September of 2005 and charged with four felony counts of battery on an Albuquerque police officer.

McKay dismissed him from the team – but only during his redshirt season. Johnson was back for 2006-07.

Johnson had more than his share of spats with teammates and never lived up to his hype. Giddens lit up the nets, but also verbally lit up his teammates and the coaching staff.

“That year was not only bad because of the losing, but we had let (KOB-TV) follow us (behind the scenes) and that magnified all the problems,” Faris said. “I’m not blaming it on them at all, but that particular team wasn’t mature enough to handle it and all the problems. You can tell by the record we finished with.”

On Jan. 1, the Lobos lost a 70-68 heartbreaker at Texas Tech in a game that made Bobby Knight the winningest coach in NCAA men’s basketball history. UNM soon went into a nose dive, losing eight of nine, including a 70-49 embarrassment at home to BYU. Privately word was that McKay was out.

The Lobos won three of their next four, but then came the final blow.

New Mexico had San Diego State dead to rights in the Pit when Johnson took an inbounds pass under the Lobos’ basket in a tie game just before the final horn. But Johnson blew the wide-open layup, New Mexico lost in overtime, and Krebs and McKay jointly announced the coach’s firing two days later.

McKay was allowed to finish the season, but the Lobos finished with four more losses – the last in the MWC conference tournament play-in game to TCU in Las Vegas. They were 15-17 overall and 4-12 in the league.

After the final game, Johnson’s father – Howard Johnson – came into the locker room, which was open to the media but not the public, and got into a verbal confrontation with assistant coach Brad Soucie. Strength coach Aaron Day had to restrain the angered father. Day and Soucie said Howard Johnson was yelling and cursing at the coaching staff and security was called.

“That incident pretty much summed up that whole season,” says Faris, who now plays professional basketball in Lebanon. “(Howard Johnson) storms into the locker room, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen this before.’ It was crazy.

“But that year helped me as far as moving forward and learning some things. It was a tough year.”

Give him Liberty

McKay, left, consoling then-Lobo Danny Granger, and his team had to overcome the suicide of transfer player Billy Feeney before the 2003-04 season. (Journal File)
McKay, left, consoling then-Lobo Danny Granger, and his team had to overcome the suicide of transfer player Billy Feeney before the 2003-04 season. (Journal File)

McKay left the Lobos with some solid talent – like Giddens, Danridge, Prentice, Faris, Martinez, Toppert and Smith, and coach Steve Alford led them to a 24-9 record in 2007-08.

“A lot of the games we won had a lot had to do with coach Alford,” Faris says. “But we were almost all coach McKay’s players. Coach McKay had a really good foundation for the future. He left a lot in the cupboard.”

McKay finished at UNM with eight road wins in five seasons, but was confident he would get another head coaching gig. He was hired at Liberty, a private Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., that year.

He led the Flames to the Big South semifinals in back-to-back years, and to 23 wins and the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament in 2008-09. The program had just one winning record in 11 seasons prior to that.

In the spring of 2009, McKay’s longtime friend Tony Bennett was hired as head coach at Virginia, and Bennett hired McKay as associate head coach.

“It’s been a blessing for me,” McKay says. “The most unique thing is I’m getting a master’s degree in defense working with coach Bennett. It will have me better prepared me for another head coaching stop, if indeed that happens.”

McKay says he is enjoying life. He reads a lot more, has taken up tennis and spends much more time with his family – wife of 23 years Julie, daughter Ellie (19), sons Luke (15) and Gabriel (13) and his dog – a Goldendoodle named Granger.

Bennett, a former NBA player and the son of former college coach, says McKay has been a “home run” for his program. He says he’d like McKay to stay as long as possible, but believes McKay will be a head coach again.

“Someone would be crazy not to hire him,” Bennett said. “You cannot put a substitute on experience. It’s just matter of time, and if he wants to do that.”

McKay says he’s does, and maybe sooner rather than later.

“I think I’m ready to do it again,” McKay says, “but at the same time, I really like our team. It would really take the right situation to leave.”

As far as the way he left New Mexico, McKay says he doesn’t have any hard feelings.

“My memory of my experience there is very positive,” he says. “The bottom line is, I was privileged to have the reins and I gave my best effort trying to build it up. I do think we had the program in a healthy place.

“I don’t harbor any bitterness. Paul Krebs hired a great coach in Steve Alford, and I was excited for that program’s advance because of my dad’s affiliation.

“I will always root for UNM.”

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