Craig Neal was born on a drizzly Sunday, in the basketball haven of Indiana, under the sign of Aquarius, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president of these United States.
Several months later, on a relatively warm, clear night on the first day of December, a basketball arena in Albuquerque opened its doors.
Some five decades forward, Neal carries in his pocket the keys to that building.
Neal has been in charge of the UNM men’s basketball program since the spring of 2013, but the season he is about to embark on will be his most telling.
He needs to win — for his own peace of mind and to avoid the pieces of minds he’s prone to get from grumpy Lobo fans. UNM needs him to win — because it could use the cash and because it would cost it a million bucks to pry him from his contract.
And there’s no reason to believe he can’t win enough to suit all but the most cranky of parties.
Lobo Elijah Brown is the best player in the Mountain West.
Tim Williams quietly goes about his business dismantling interior defenses.
Jordan Hunter hinted at his potential as a point guard when he was a mere freshman last time around.
The guitar-playing, Batman-loving Connor McDougall has fan-favorite possibilities.
Sam Logwood, perhaps not the best shooter, teases with his athletic presence.
The versatility of Xavier Adams is invaluable.
It will be engaging to watch the development of youngster Damien Jefferson, the son of sleek former Lobo Everette “Hiway” Jefferson, who had 103 assists and 85 steals in 18 games in the 1979-80 season.
And the same is true for freshman point guard Jalen Harris, one of North Carolina’s finest.
Forget the 32-31 record amassed the past two seasons. Block out the 17-19 record in the mediocre Mountain West Conference over that same unfortunate span.
Turnovers? Neal has addressed the problem. Remember when he patiently told us last season he knows more about the point position than anyone this side of Magic Johnson?
Lagging attendance? No worries. Folks will return to the 50-year-old structure partially dug into the good New Mexico earth to witness a winner.
There is nothing but opportunity as we approach another winter.
There’s the prospect of handing old rival UTEP a defeat in the Pit.
There’s a visit to Arizona, where the ghost of Lute Olson awaits.
There’s even a chance to come across UCLA and a meeting with old whats-his-name and his talented son Bryce.
The Lobos will spend New Year’s Day in San Diego against an Aztecs team that seems vulnerable.
Aside from injuries, bad bounces and general malaise, what can go wrong?
Neal said he feels no pressure — well, other than the general stress of being the head coach at a university that prizes basketball.
There is pressure to win, of course, but there is also pressure to keep the funds flowing.
Red ink has spilled down University Blvd. Last year UNM football brought in $5,382,841 in total revenue, according to figures provided by the school. But its total expenses were $6,478,644. To make matters worse, Boise State’s loss at Wyoming may have cost the league, and UNM, New Year’s Day Bowl money. (And I thought Rocky Long and San Diego State were going to swipe those dollars from Paul Krebs.)
Meanwhile, last season men’s basketball generated $6,088,946 in revenue with $2,969,449 in expenses. That’s $3 million on the plus side.
UNM’s attention to football has not paid off in cold cash. Reality says men’s basketball must step forward.
That’s the job for which the faithful son of Indiana has signed up.
This season, with a talented roster of his own assemblage, in a building that demands (and sometimes seems to create) wins, Craig Neal will have a generous opportunity to prove he was born for this job.