We don’t know how interested Neal is, or was, in South Florida. We asked more than once; he didn’t say.
We do know what University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs should do if he hears Neal gets an offer to go coach basketball elsewhere.
Let him go.
Absolutely let him go. No counteroffers. Prepare to rake in a $1 million buyout from the next school that feels Neal is worth that much, plus, presumably, more money than the $750,000 base salary he earns at UNM.
Turn the page. Conduct a national search for the next leader of Lobo basketball.
Alas, there goes my invitation to the next Neal family cookout. But this point is about business, just as it is business to listen to offers from other schools when under contract at one.
If, one year into a five-year contract, Neal feels like testing the waters of his marketability, there indeed may never be a better time to do so.
The question about the longtime assistant was never about his basketball acumen; it was whether he could be the CEO of the corporation. Neal answered that.
There is, obviously, profound and chronic disappointment felt by the Lobo Nation after another NCAA one-and-done. But if you peg that on Neal, you also have to credit him for the 27 wins, including two against a Sweet 16 San Diego State team; for a Mountain West Conference tournament title; for doing it against a pretty interesting schedule (nonconference, at least); and for filling the Pit.
What UNM fans begged for after the kick in the gut from the departing Steve Alford was continuity to keep a good thing going. Neal provided it.
But the easy part is over.
The band is breaking up. Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams, who were very good, are gone. You have to wonder whether Nick Banyard, who played so little down the stretch, is too.
And the 7-foot elephant in the room is Alex Kirk. He is weighing his many options, which include a possible fifth-year transfer as a graduate to another school. A whole column could be written on his situation, but his “no idea right now” comment about his future, after the UNM loss to Stanford in the NCAAs, is telling.
If Kirk leaves, too, that’s even more scoring, more rebounding, more high post-to-low post passing and more leadership to replace. As for the UNM newcomers? Just hope that recruiting services’ grading systems are vastly overrated or these kids have been vastly underrated.
In short, a pretty remarkable stretch of Lobo hoops history may have peaked.
Perhaps Neal sees that. Perhaps he sees greener pastures beyond the brown of the High Desert, somewhere he can win, play his son two more minutes than another player, and nobody will call the talk shows or write to Speak Up! Father and son, of course, would first have to figure out whether Cullen wanted to tag along and sit out a year as an undergrad transfer.
Then again, perhaps Cullen’s father sees or thinks none of this. We believe the coach when he said he feels this is a special place.
But if he wants to use the success of this year with the threat of other suitors as a power play for reworked terms, Krebs doesn’t have to play along. Is $750K annually and the deal’s bonus structure fair for what Neal did? It must be. He agreed to it.
This was a week that UNM figured out a way to give raises to faculty and staff, but reject an increase in tuition. Yet it became clear that it wasn’t easy, that the school is counting every nickel.
Krebs should count his, too. He should honor the sanctity of the contractual process. He should avoid the widespread temptation and practice of giving coaches raises just because their names are associated with some sad-sack program.
That said, the guess here is that sometime soon, UNM will announce that Neal is staying and getting some sort of extension, perhaps with a small raise, in a gesture more symbolic than anything. Krebs did similarly for football coach Bob Davie, after all, extending his deal between two losing seasons and a 7-18 overall record to this point.
It was a year ago today that Alford dropped the bombshell news of his exit plan. In expansive coverage by the Journal the next day, Rick Wright eloquently wrapped up a column on why Alford would break your hearts thusly:
“And we’re not.”
We can’t imagine typing the lines “It’s South Florida. And we’re not,” without giggling.