Delivery alert

There may be an issue with the delivery of your newspaper. This alert will expire at NaN. Click here for more info.

Recover password

Rick Wright: A million reasons for UNM to keep Neal

Just 359 days ago, amid widespread fan discontent in the wake of a disappointing UNM men’s basketball season, I weighed in on the pros and cons of axing Lobos coach Craig Neal.

The big con, trumping all the pros: The $1 million buyout clause in Neal’s contract. No crystal ball was required in fearlessly predicting that Neal would be back. And yes, he was.WRIGHT-Rick_2012

Alas, after a 2016-17 season the virtual twin of the previous campaign, here we are again.

Last season: a 17-15 record, 10-8 in Mountain West Conference play, 12-4 at home, 5-7 on the road, 0-4 on a neutral court, one-and-done in the MWC tournament.

This season: 17-14, 10-8, 11-4, 5-7, 1-3, one-and-done.

If we’d known in early November what we know now, we could have told the Mountain West and the NCAA to just copy and paste.

Nonetheless, UNM athletic director Paul Krebs on Friday announced that Neal will return for 2017-18 – citing key injuries suffered along the way that impacted the season.

Krebs did not say the $1 million buyout clause in Neal’s contract impacted his decision. That doesn’t mean it didn’t.

Straight up, buyout or no buyout, does Neal deserve to be fired? If UNM women’s basketball coach Yvonne Sanchez deserved to be fired last March, Neal most assuredly does now.

This was Sanchez’s worksheet in 2015-16: 17-15 overall, 9-9 in conference, 10-7 at home, 6-7 away, two-and-out in the MWC tournament, one-and-done in the Women’s Basketball Invitational tournament.

This, Krebs said, was not good enough.

“We have very high expectations for our women’s basketball program,” Krebs said in announcing Sanchez’s termination on March 18, 2016. “… 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.”

Again, with only minor changes, one could copy and paste Krebs’ words and aptly describe the current status of the men’s program under Neal.

Here, though, is what Krebs said in Friday’s statement:

“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 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.”

Sanchez, last season, did not have the excuse of a rash of injuries. But she did have a strong incoming recruiting class.

“I asked (Krebs) about getting another year with the recruits we have coming in,” Sanchez said the day of her dismissal. “He quite frankly didn’t want to hear it.”

One minor difference: Sanchez was five years into her tenure as head coach, Neal four years into his.

One major difference: Sanchez’s buyout was $150,000, not $1 million.

In Friday’s statement, Krebs was more optimistic about next season than pure logic might suggest.

Senior power forward Tim Williams (17.5 points and seven rebounds per game) has played his last game as a Lobo. Junior guard Elijah Brown (18.9 points per game) has the option of returning, going pro or playing at another school as a likely graduate transfer. If Brown chooses to leave, with Williams gone, so is 49 percent of UNM’s scoring.

In announcing Sanchez’s dismissal last March, Krebs said the following: “Five years is enough time for a coach to put a stamp on a program and be in a position to compete for championships.”

Next March, after year five of the Neal era, we’ll see if five years indeed has been enough.

If not, we’ll see if that $1 million buyout is enough to keep Neal around for year six.