Yvonne Sanchez’s five-year tenure as University of New Mexico women’s basketball coach ended suddenly but not quietly Friday.
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs informed Sanchez in a 9 a.m. meeting that she had been fired one year into a four-year contract extension. He addressed the media regarding Sanchez’s dismissal a few hours later.
New Mexico’s season ended Wednesday with a first-round home loss to Weber State in the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
“We have very high expectations for our women’s basketball program,” Krebs said. “… We expect to be leaders in the Mountain West and our program should be nationally relevant. We need to consistently participate in the NCAA Tournament or the (W)NIT and frankly, that’s not happening. For lack of a better word, we’ve fallen into mediocrity. That’s not acceptable.”
Sanchez later met with media members at a local business and said she was “completely blindsided” by the firing. She did not share Krebs’ assessment of the program’s condition, did not like his handling of her dismissal and fought back tears as she discussed Friday’s sequence of events.
“I don’t understand (Krebs’) five-year reasoning, I surely don’t,” Sanchez said. “I disagree with his decision and with where he thinks the program is at. … I didn’t see him at many games this season.”
Paul Krebs and Yvonne Sanchez parted ways with opposing viewpoints Friday.
Krebs saw the school’s women’s basketball program as a glass half-empty and fired Sanchez after five seasons as head coach. UNM went 77-81 under Sanchez and finished 17-15 this season.
“The bottom line is we haven’t been winning enough games,” he said.
Sanchez, who took over a program ravaged by player transfers and injuries in 2011, believed the Lobos were trending upward. She conceded 2015-16 was “disappointing to a lot of people,” but pointed out she was named Mountain West Coach of the Year the previous season, when UNM finished 21-13 and as MWC runner-up in both the regular season and league tournament. The Lobos also have a highly touted four-player recruiting class signed for next season.
“I asked (Krebs) about getting another year with the recruits we have coming in,” Sanchez said. “He quite frankly didn’t want to hear it.”
Krebs said assistant coach and former Lobo player Amy Beggin will take over the program while a coaching search is conducted. The remaining members of Sanchez’s staff will not be retained unless a new coach opts to hire them.
Sanchez’s annual salary was $266,640 and she will receive a $150,000 buyout in 12 monthly payments of $12,500, Krebs said. If Sanchez takes another job in athletics during that span, the buyout is then terminated.
Krebs said Sanchez and her staff were the highest paid among Mountain West women’s basketball programs. He said that with UNM’s facilities and fan support, it’s fair to expect the Lobos to contend for league championships on a regular basis. Sanchez’s team went 40-44 against MWC competition.
“It pains me to say it but our league is not very good right now,” Krebs said. “… We were picked to finish second, we finished fifth in a very average league and our season culminated with a loss to (Weber State) that finished fifth in the Big Sky.”
He went on to say that UNM posted just one winning conference season under Sanchez.
“Five years is enough time for a coach to put a stamp on a program and be in position to compete for championships,” Krebs said. “I don’t see us being in that position. We took a step back this year and I expected us to take a step forward.”
Krebs credited Sanchez for her work in rebuilding UNM’s roster and talent level after taking over for Don Flanagan in 2011. Flanagan, who built Lobo women’s basketball into a consistent winner and one of the nation’s top-drawing programs, stepped down after four freshmen transferred out of the program.
“Yvonne Sanchez is a very good person,” Krebs said. “She’s a New Mexican and spent 16 years with our women’s basketball program. She is a quality individual. This is a tough, painful, uncomfortable decision. But the business side of what we do, after five years we need to win games.”
Sanchez said she was not told prior to Friday that her job was in jeopardy and wondered out loud about the circumstances of her firing. She declined to speculate about social media suggestions that her firing was race or gender motivated but pointed out that other UNM coaches have been given “more leeway” after unsuccessful seasons.
UNM’s decision to fire Sanchez was not universally well-received. Numerous fans and longtime New Mexicans rose to defend Sanchez, a Los Alamos native and Eldorado High School graduate whose teams posted an overall 3.6 grade-point average during her tenure and were active in community projects.
Ralph Arellanes, chair of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, a civil rights group in the state, blasted the decision to fire Sanchez and suggested race played a factor.
“Coach Sanchez is a class act and she just won the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year for 2014-2015,” Arellanes said. “The long tradition of UNM removing high performing and highly recognized Hispanos in all areas must stop or be prepared for strong consequences.”
Sanchez said she had received hundreds of calls and texts from fans, well-wishers and coaching colleagues within hours of her firing.
She informed her staff members of the decision shortly after leaving Krebs’ office but Lobo players were told via athletic departments texts. Sanchez would have preferred to tell players personally before she met with them late Friday morning. She also contacted the program’s signed recruits for next season.
“They were blindsided like I was,” Sanchez said. “But kids are resilient. My hope is they all still come here and do very, very well.”
Sanchez had not decided Friday whether she’ll remain in coaching at either the collegiate or high school level or will choose to do something else. Asked if she would consider coaching girls basketball at Eldorado, where her brother Roy Sanchez serves as boys basketball coach and athletic director, Yvonne smiled.
“I don’t know if the AD would hire me,” she joked.
Krebs said the search for Sanchez’s replacement was already under way Friday afternoon. He prefers candidates with head-coaching experience at the collegiate level and who are familiar with New Mexico and its recruiting bases.
“There’s urgency to create stability for the young women who are here and those who are coming to our program,” Krebs said. “But we’re hoping to hire someone who’ll be here five, 10, 15 years. … I can’t give a realistic timeline right now.”