Ed Johnson Column: Maybe Neal needs to jump on his Harley and hit the road - Albuquerque Journal

Ed Johnson Column: Maybe Neal needs to jump on his Harley and hit the road

JOHNSON-Ed_2012Dear Steve,

I realize you’ve been busy fending off UCLA fans who claimed they were willing to buy you a $7.8 million bus ticket to Indiana.

So you may not be aware of what is going on with your boyhood chum and the school for which you once professed a fondness.

Craig Neal’s time at UNM has struck midnight.

As someone who understands the dynamics of Lobo basketball and the workings of your former loyal assistant, you are in a unique position to convince him to walk away.

“One of the things you don’t usually mess with is ‘happy’,” you famously told us about 50 days before UCLA phoned.

Well, happy is being messed with again.

There’s been a wave of Lobos stumbling over each other to get out of town, creating a bottleneck on I-40.

Even those fans predisposed to supporting Neal are wondering what in the wild, wild world of sports is going on.

You remember the passion Lobo basketball stirs. A couple of weeks ago, the silent majority of fans may have been content to go through a lame duck season with Neal, figuring if the program showed little or no improvement, a change would happen.

But with the recent exodus, that faith is shaken. How long can they and your friend coexist in basketball purgatory?

Of course there is the whole buyout business (by the way, you played that nicely on your way out of UNM and doubled down with your deal at UCLA).

The fifth year of Neal’s regime contractually begins Saturday. UNM has through today to inform him of its intention to terminate the agreement or else pay him his $300,000 base salary for 2017-18. Regardless, if it cuts Neal loose anytime between now and March 31, 2020, the school will fork over $1 million for the privilege of letting him go.

UNM could whistle in the dark the next three seasons, avoiding the $1 million buyout, while hoping the program can maintain viability and muster the $4 million in ticket revenues it has brought in annually since 2011.

The school could wait until it hires a new president in the fall. The new president could take time to review the hiring history of your old boss, Paul Krebs, then decide if Krebs is the guy who should be in charge of another coaching search.

You were his best hire, but in some ways, he got lucky. Would you have come if your time at Iowa had not worn thin?

Or UNM could cut the cord now, scrounge up some cash from some mysterious university discretionary fund (as it did for Mike Locksley, Rocky Long and Yvonne Sanchez) and call it an investment. But let’s face it, UNM is facing far more severe financial straits than in previous years.

A couple of weeks ago, yanking the Band-Aid did not seem necessary.

When leading scorer Elijah Brown left, there was a feeling of inevitability. When Anthony Mathis left, he took with him memories of 3-point shooting contests at the Lobo Howl and unspent promise. When Sam Logwood (who picked up steam when Tim Williams was sidelined) left with only one year of eligibility remaining, that raised some eyebrows. When promising freshman Jalen Harris left, that meant four departures of scholarship players in nine days. There came a sense that Neal was losing touch with his own program.

When you were here, there was the common refrain that Neal was the brains of the operation. Your buddy could draw up some serious Xs and Os.

But knowing how to draw Xs doesn’t mean you know how to develop young men. Knowing how to draw Os doesn’t mean you know how to run a program or inspire a community.

Maybe you can convince your friend to negotiate with UNM for something lower than $1 million as a parting gift, and then step away. Maybe advise him to hop on his Harley and take a nice long ride across the country to clear his mind.

Then UNM can get on with the business of basketball.

And, as you know, what an industry it has become.

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