McCarthy, who coached 1992 Aggies into Sweet 16, dies at 81 - Albuquerque Journal

McCarthy, who coached 1992 Aggies into Sweet 16, dies at 81

NMSU head coach Neil McCarthy keeps his hands under control during a 1996 Aggies home basketball game against New Mexico. McCarthy has died at his home in Utah. (Aaron Wilson/Journal file)

LAS CRUCES – Former New Mexico State men’s basketball coach Neil McCarthy died Saturday at his home in Utah. He was 81 years old.

McCarthy was inducted to the New Mexico State University Athletics Hall of Fame last year.

His tenure at New Mexico State from 1985-97 will be remembered for producing the second-best record in the history of the program. However, 22 of his 248 wins and the team’s 1992 Sweet 16 appearance were vacated by the NCAA for academic fraud.

McCarthy was fired in 1997 and didn’t coach again.

“I think Coach should be remembered for all of the success that the Aggies have had,” former Aggies and NBA guard Randy Brown said. “The Big West was a pretty good conference back in the day.

“He often talked about how we would win games ugly because we defended. We had a bunch of guys they claimed couldn’t shoot and score but we kept games close and eventually won them because we guarded. He trusted me at the top of his zone defense and I think that’s what got me thinking defense and made me a better defender, and from the bottom of my heart, I have to thank him for that.”

Brown said former teammate and current Las Cruces High basketball coach William Benjamin informed him on McCarthy’s passing.

“(McCarthy’s wife Vivian) was calling me last night (Saturday) and I didn’t answer because if someone calls you past 10 at night, you know it’s not going to be good,” Benjamin said. “I didn’t want to come to grips with it, but she called me (Sunday). We talked. We cried. She said he died peacefully in his sleep.

“Neil was Neil all the way through. He was going to smoke his cigarettes and have his drinks.”

Benjamin came to NMSU in 1988 from Los Angeles. Benjamin is a special education teacher at LCHS and he was a special education student prior to high school.

“Neil stayed with me,” Benjamin said. “I was a special ed kid who couldn’t pass regular classes but I could play basketball. I didn’t get in normal classes until I was in high school.

“You had to pass the SAT and it took me four tries. Everyone who was recruiting me dropped off of me. When I passed, everyone jumped back on. I stayed loyal to (McCarthy) and ended up signing with New Mexico State.”

McCarthy put small schools such as Weber State and New Mexico State on the map. His signature at NMSU was the matchup zone where he utilized high IQ players such as Brown, Benjamin and Michael New to make up for athletic or talent deficiencies in the Big West against national power UNLV or Long Beach State.

“He could take 15 guys with 15 different egos and mold us into one,” Brown said. “He really liked junior college players. They were a little more polished and he could coach them a little bit harder.

“It was a perfect situation for myself. I could have gone to a bigger university but New Mexico State was obviously the right choice for me.”

Brown credits McCarthy for his defensive prowess, a big reason he had a 12-year NBA career and a prominent role on championship teams with the Chicago Bulls.

But it didn’t come easy for Brown, a Chicago native who came to NMSU as a transfer from Houston in 1989.

“New Mexico State wasn’t at the top of my list when I was looking to transfer,” Brown said. “I just felt like it was a great choice. (McCarthy) treated me with the upmost respect and I saw a picture of where this thing was going. After visiting the campus and sitting with Coach, it was easy for me to choose New Mexico State.”

McCarthy is second to Lou Henson among NMSU basketball coaches with the most wins. Henson passed in 2020.

The two men were polar opposites in personality, but are currently the top two coaches in the history of the program and synonymous with NMSU basketball.

“My relationship with (McCarthy) after I played was just as good, if not better, as I had with him as a player because I’m more mature,” Benjamin said. “I understand that some of the things he did, he didn’t have to do for me, but that’s just my experience. Neil wasn’t Lou Henson. He was probably the opposite. But Neil did some positive things for a lot of people, and I’m one of them.”

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