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Editorial: Does Neal’s $200K raise send the wrong message?

FOR THE RECORD: This editorial included incorrect information about raises at UNM. It should have said staff received a 2.5 percent salary increase this year, not 2.3 percent, and a 1 percent raise last year. Faculty received 3 percent raises both years.

University of New Mexico head basketball coach Craig Neal just hit an unopposed three-pointer to win the Mountain West salary competition.

But is this a good win for UNM overall?

Considering UNM’s budget struggles of the last several years, it’s fair to ask if giving Neal a $200,000 raise at this early point in his contract is the right message to send to students who are routinely asked to pay more in the way of athletic fees and to faculty and staff who have had to wait five years for 2.3 percent raises, most of which are being eaten up by higher health care costs.

Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle in a text message said she recognizes that athletics plays a role in the branding of the university, but she believes “that we would like to see this sort of comparative valuation for our extremely high quality faculty, who are also underpaid. … Our faculty also – and one might suggest, pre-eminently – contribute to the value of a UNM degree.”

And it’s not such a good message to legislators and taxpayers, many of whom have had relatively stagnant incomes since the great recession of 2008 – assuming they are lucky enough to have full employment.

But college athletics is big business and Neal may well be worth his new $950,000 compensation package – the highest for a basketball coach in the MWC. He rolled to a 27-7 record in his first year and won the MWC tournament, but like most of his predecessors his Lobos tanked early in the Big Dance.

Obviously, Athletic Director Paul Krebs, UNM President Robert G. Frank and at least one regent, think he is worth it. At some point in July they signed off on what until Monday was a well-kept secret.

And, yes, after the defection of Steve Alford at the end of the previous season, Lobo fans were thrilled to have a well-respected, known quantity available to step in. They have embraced Noodles with enthusiasm and support.

However, raising his compensation package to $950,000 is a startling turnaround. This spring, as Krebs was extending Neal’s contract through the 2019-2020 school year, he said no accompanying pay raise was in the works. Now we find out that negotiations began in March.

Over the life of the six-year contract – assuming he doesn’t follow Alford’s steps to greener pastures or Richie McKay’s, who was invited to go elsewhere – Neal will haul in $5.7 million before incentives. True, if Neal does quit before his contract is up he will owe UNM and New Mexico taxpayers $1 million.

There were a few concessions in the new contract deal, and not all of them good. Neal won’t get extra pay for his team’s academic success, which has been a bright spot for the Lobos. UNM student athletes have been at or near the top in the league for years recovering nicely from the basketball academic scandals of Lobogate and coach Dave Bliss. Dropping it implies academic achievement is no longer a top priority. And without a contract clause, there’s no leverage to make sure the focus on academic success continues going forward.

Let’s face it. No coach is going to be fired for cause if Lobo academics falter – provided he’s winning games. That’s just how it is. Most members of the UNM and the New Mexico communities understand college sports have become big business and that salaries for Division I coaches are out of control. But after just one year of leading the wolfpack, this is a tough bet.

And it comes as UNM Athletics continues to run a deficit – six of the past seven years – and continues to run to the UNM student fee board for help.

In June, Frank said he wanted Krebs to balance his budget, while acknowledging “our athletic department does more with less budget dollars than almost every athletic department in the country.”

Unfortunately, the message this raise sends is pretty clear: Lobo basketball is the most important thing on campus.

Is it the right one?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.