Each year, the Journal publishes a story about the past 12 months in Albuquerque and New Mexico sports. For reasons fairly obvious, we in the biz call it a year-ender.
Here, though, just for fun, is a sort of prequel – a look back at the people and the teams who were our top stories in the past 10 year-enders.
Ritchie McKay’s hot seat.
As the 2006 year-ender went to press, coach McKay’s UNM men’s basketball team had an 11-3 record. You’d take 11-3 right now, wouldn’t you, Lobo Nation?
Nonetheless, a 17-13 record the previous season and back-to-back December road losses to UTEP and New Mexico State – by a combined 55 points – spelled big trouble for the fifth-year coach.
There would not be a sixth year. The Lobos would go 4-14 the rest of the way, and athletic director Paul Krebs announced McKay’s dismissal before season’s end.
McKay is now in his second stint as the men’s head coach at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., sandwiched around a six-year stint as an assistant at Virginia. The Flames are 5-8 so far this season, but McKay was named the Big South Coach of the Year in 2014-15.
Steve Alford takes charge.
Not everyone (and count me among them) was convinced Alford, the former Indiana star and Iowa coach, was the right guy to replace McKay.
Alford quickly restored order to the chaos of the previous season, guiding the Lobos to a 12-2 record that December. They would go on to finish 24-9, 11-5 in Mountain West play – a debut season marred only by a first-round exit in the Mountain West tournament (Utah) and a first-round loss to California in the NIT.
In his six seasons at UNM, Alford went 155-52. His winning percentage (.749) is easily the best of any UNM coach of modern times.
The NCAA Tournament, though, was another matter. In three tries, he never took the Lobos past the round of 32. His final game was an upset loss to Harvard.
Alford now is the fourth-year coach at UCLA. The Bruins (13-0) are ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Rocky and Mike: the end of two eras at UNM.
Mike Roberts and Rocky Long first met in 1968, when the former was the Lobos’ radio play-by-play announcer and the latter was a freshman football player. They would renew their relationship when Long became his alma mater’s head coach in 1998.
A decade later, UNM would oust Roberts as its football and men’s basketball play-by-play announcer. Long would bow out as the Lobos’ head coach, saying he had taken the program as far as he could.
Today, Long is the highly successful head coach at San Diego State. Roberts, an icon to so many Lobo fans for so many years, got back behind the mic as a high school play-by-play man before his death earlier this year at age 83.
Mike Locksley and the damage done.
Locksley, previously the offensive coordinator at Illinois, was hired as Long’s replacement on Dec. 9, 2008. By the end of ’09, he had gone 1-11 on the field, been involved in a physical altercation with an assistant coach, and been the target of a sex discrimination complaint filed by a longtime football department administrative assistant.
The complaint from the administrative assistant and a lawsuit filed against UNM by the assistant coach, J.B. Gerald, eventually were dealt with. But UNM couldn’t deal with a 1-15 record in Locksley’s next 16 games, and he was fired four weeks into the 2011 season.
After four years as Maryland’s offensive coordinator and a stint as the Terrapins’ interim head coach in 2015, Locksley was hired by Alabama coach Nick Saban as an offensive analyst.
In recent weeks, Locksley was rumored to be a candidate as Lane Kiffin’s replacement as ‘Bama’s offensive coordinator. That didn’t happen. Locksley then was rumored to be getting a job on Kiffin’s staff at Florida Atlantic. That has not happened to this point.
The Lobos are really good.
After trips to the NIT in his first two seasons, Alford took the Lobos to the Big Dance in season No. 3. Behind do-everything junior-college transfer Darington Hobson,
the Lobos won the Mountain West regular-season championship. The 2009-10 team’s 30-5 record puts it in the conversation as among the program’s best teams of all time.
Still, the third-seeded Lobos could advance no further than the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling hard, 82-64, to 11th-seeded Washington.
Hobson, who led the ’09-’10 Lobos in scoring, rebounding and assists – the only Lobo to have done so – passed up his senior year to enter the NBA draft. He has never made an impact in the NBA but was a standout in the CBA before heading overseas. He now plays for the Guangxi Weizhuang Rhinos of the Chinese National Basketball League.
Locksley out, Davie in.
That November, former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie was introduced as Locksley’s replacement.
At the traditional introductory news conference, Krebs helped his new coach slip into the traditional cherry-red blazer. Asked if he had a timetable for turning around the team’s fortunes, Davie said, “No, I won’t go there.
“(Fans) just want to see some pride. That’s a pretty good starting point right there – get the pride back.”
Within the program, Davie certainly has done that. The Lobos’ Gildan New Mexico Bowl victory over UTSA last Saturday was their ninth of the season against four losses and was UNM’s second straight winning season after seven straight losing ones.
But is pride, or anything else regarding UNM football, what the fans want to see? Given poor attendance figures at University Stadium this fall, one has to wonder.
As a teaser, Sunday’s year-ender will wrestle at some length with that issue.
Johnny Tapia dies.
Tapia, a five-time world boxing champion from Albuquerque’s Wells Park neighborhood, lived most of his adult life with a cocaine habit that landed him in jail, cost him 3½years out of his career and several times nearly killed him. Yet, his talent, personality and charisma combined to make him among the most beloved of Albuquerque sports figures.
After his death in May from heart disease at age 45, almost 7,000 people attended a memorial service at the Pit.
Tapia, as well, will be mentioned in Sunday’s year-ender – having been selected as an International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee.
Alford out, Neal in.
On March 31, 10 days after agreeing to a contract extension at UNM, Alford accepted the job at UCLA.
“The toughest decision that I’ve had to make,” Alford said, “maybe ever.”
Krebs’ decision to elevate Craig Neal, Alford’s lead assistant, to the top job wasn’t as difficult. Neal was the overwhelming choice of players and influential friends of the program.
Now, in December 2016, the Lobos’ struggles have prompted critics to compare Neal to McKay. This, too, will be fodder for discussion in Sunday’s year-ender.
As the 2014 story of the year, I singled out the UNM women’s cross country program for finishing third at NCAA nationals while compiling a team GPA of 3.85 – student-athletes at their best.
Did I really foresee that, having won the NCAA title in 2015 – and being named the NCAA Division I Women’s Scholar Team of the Year – cross country would get topped by Albuquerque MMA fighter Holly Holm’s spectacular upset of Ronda Rousey in Australia?
Yes, of course.
Now, on to 2016.