Four years after he was hired amid great fanfare to be the head coach of the University of New Mexico men, Craig Neal and the school late Friday night parted ways to end a tumultuous relationship.
The University confirmed just before midnight Friday that Neal will not return.
“The University of New Mexico is grateful for the service and dedication that Coach Neal gave to Lobo basketball,” UNM Athletic Director Paul Krebs wrote in an email a half hour after the news broke. “He led us to a Mountain West Tournament championship as head coach and his guidance and leadership of student-athletes off the court should be highlighted. Lobo Basketball set records for GPA, graduating players, and Coach Neal ran a program that the community can be proud of. He’s a good man and a winning coach, but the time has come to move Lobo Basketball in a new direction. We will begin a search for a new coach immediately and look forward to building on the winning tradition of Lobo Basketball.”
A message seeking comment left by the Journal with Neal early Saturday morning shortly after the news was confirmed was not returned.
Neal’s contract, which was to run through the 2019-20 season, included a $1 million buyout and a requirement to pay him the rest of that contract year’s base salary of $300,000 if the school fired him. The contract year starts on April 1, which is why talks about his future, and angst among an increasingly frustrated fan base, grew so intense this week.
His total salary and compensation was $950,000 per year, making him the highest paid public employee in the state.
Neal replaced Steve Alford in April 2013. Alford left for UCLA after six seasons at UNM with Neal as his associate head coach. The two had the same positions at Iowa prior to coming to Albuquerque in 2007.
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs, who is in Glendale this week for the Final Four as a member of the NCAA Selection Committee, will begin immediately a national search for Neal’s replacement.
On March 10, the day after UNM’s 2016-17 season came to an end with loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West Tournament quarterfinals, Krebs sent out a statement announcing Neal would return next season as head coach.
“In order to end speculation, I’m announcing that Craig Neal will return and coach the men’s basketball team next season,” Krebs wrote in a prepared statement.
Three weeks later, and after four Lobo players with eligibility remaining announced they were transferring and with two more thinking about doing the same, it became apparent the fan base was desperate to force the hand of the administration and make it revisit the situation.
“With the challenges facing UNM, every decision we make must reflect the best interests of the UNM community, and in this particular case, the men’s basketball program, as well as student-athletes and Lobo fans,” said acting UNM President Chaouki Abdallah. “The decision made late (Friday night) comes after lengthy consideration in light of recent developments that cannot be ignored. We understand the frustration being voiced by Lobo fans and hope they will see us through this time of transition and continue to support UNM athletics.”
In his four seasons, Neal posted 76-52 record, 42-30 in Mountain West play.
Despite losing a first-round NBA Draft pick (Tony Snell) only weeks after accepting the job, Neal set records for success as a rookie head coach season with 27 wins, 15 conference victories, a Mountain West tournament title and an NCAA Tournament berth. The 7th-seeded Lobos lost to No. 10 Stanford in their only game.
Neal also received a contract extension after that season for two years through the 2019-20 season and a $200,000 raise.
In addition to the initial success on the court, the Lobos also set program records for ticket revenue on Neal’s watch for the 2014-15 season, bringing in $4.8 million. The Lobos have also set program records for success in the classroom under Neal.
But, since his rookie campaign, Neal’s team was just 49-45 (27-27 MWC) and didn’t play in a postseason tournament each of the past three years. Fans seemed to grow tired of Neal’s penchant to be very critical publicly of his players while also being defensive when questioned about his coaching decisions or his team’s struggles.
Season tickets dropped below 9,000 this past season and the average home attendance in the Pit of 11,769 for the 2016-17 season ranked No. 28 in the nation, the first time in the 51 seasons of the arena’s existence UNM did not rank in the Top 25 in the nation in average home attendance.
His son, Eldorado High School graduate Cullen Neal, was on the team for three seasons, playing in two and receiving a medical redshirt in the 2014-15 season with a high ankle sprain.
Cullen Neal’s presence on the team, and how Craig Neal handled the father/son relationship, was harshly criticized by fans.
During the 2015-16 season, Craig Neal announced the vitriol against his son grew so intense there were “death threats” on social media made against him. Those allegations were not substantiated by UNM police, but after the season Cullen Neal decided it was best to transfer away from UNM. He recently completed his junior season of eligibility at Ole Miss.
This past season, with preseason all-conference selections Tim Williams and Elijah Brown, the Lobos were expected to compete for a league title. But they finished 17-14, 10-8 in the league and as the No. 5 seed in the postseason tournament lost their opener to Fresno State. Williams was injured for seven games in February, but even when healthy the team never seemed to reach its potential.