LAS VEGAS, Nev. – The Craig Neal era will continue for Lobo basketball.
University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs decided to end speculation about the job status of the fourth-year men’s basketball coach, confirming Friday afternoon that Neal will not be fired despite growing fan discontent and a third consecutive season without postseason success after three previous NCAA Tournament seasons.
“In order to end speculation, I’m announcing that Craig Neal will return and coach the men’s basketball team next season,” Krebs said in an emailed statement.
Krebs, who is in New York working with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, had told the
Journal in a text message Thursday night that Neal’s job status would be determined, as it has every other year, after the athletic director and the coach met in person to evaluate the past season.
Neal just completed the fourth of what was originally a five-year contract to replace former head coach Steve Alford in the spring of 2013. Neal served under Alford as associate head coach from 2007 through 2013.
Neal earned a two-year contract extension after leading the Lobos to a 27-7 season, Mountain West Conference tournament championship and NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season as head coach. That extension locked him up as coach through the 2019-20 season with a $1 million buyout (paid over two years) owed to him if he is fired before April 1, 2019.
His associate head coach, Chris Harriman, is under contract through 2018 and would be owed $150,000 if fired. Typically, the entire coaching staff goes when the head coach is relieved of his duties.
Since Neal’s rookie season, UNM has a 49-45 overall and 27-27 Mountain West record. The team has not played in the postseason and has lost in its first game of the MWC tournament the past three seasons.
Thursday, UNM was eliminated from the MWC tournament with a 65-60 loss to Fresno State, finishing the season 17-14 and with a 10-8 record in league play.
Krebs wrote in his statement on Friday: “The team went through a very difficult season with several injuries to key players that hindered the quest for a championship, and we were in contention until the final three weeks. Off the court, the team continues to be leaders in the classroom and in the community.
“I have high expectations of the program, as does Craig, and and our on-court performance needs to improve. We have an excellent incoming recruiting class and we fully expect to return Lobo basketball to the high level of excellence and achievement that our fans deserve.”
Preseason MWC Player of the Year Elijah Brown missed 30 days of practice to start the season with a hamstring injury. All-conference forward Tim Williams missed nine games (two with a concussion, seven with a left foot injury).
Reserve forward Xavier Adams was lost for the season when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament Jan. 4. Three other players (Dane Kuiper, concussion; Connor MacDougall, concussion; Jordan Hunter, sprained ankle), including two starters, missed at least 10 days with other injuries.
Neal did not respond to a request for comment Friday, but he was asked by the Journal on Thursday about his thoughts on the growing fan discontent and his opinion of the status of the program.
“I’m not oblivious to it,” Neal said. “I’ve been a part when we won three in a row, too. I thought our younger kids really competed. We appreciate all the support. We’re grateful for all the support, the fans that came out. I think they were proud of the way our kids played and how hard they played. It was difficult.
“But I like where the program is. I like the young players we have. I like who we’ve signed. We’ve got some stuff we’ve got to figure out. We don’t know exactly what Elijah (Brown) is going to do. But I like where we are. … I thought our guys handled adversity as good as we’ve done since I’ve been here, with all the injuries.”
Brown might transfer after earning his degree in May and would be eligible to play next season if he does. He was non-committal on his return to UNM when asked Thursday. Williams and starting center Obij Aget will graduate this spring.
This past season, UNM averaged 11,769 fans per home game in the Pit, ranking No. 29 out of 351 Division I programs and No. 2 in the MWC. Relative to past success at UNM, though, it was a down year – the first falling outside the top 25 in national attendance in 51 seasons since the Pit opened.
UNM reported in November it sold 8,805 season tickets. That is the lowest number in 12 years and down 12.2 percent from the 2015-16 season. More troubling was the two year drop – 24.3 percent since a record high (11,617) in Neal’s first season, 2013-14.
Still, Lobo basketball reported a $3 million profit for fiscal year 2015-16, even as the athletics department overall had a deficit of $1.54 million.
UNM recently announced a ticket-price reduction for football and is expected to do the same this offseason for basketball after small increases each of the previous three offseasons.