GLENDALE, Ariz. – It quite literally went down to the 11th hour for Lobo men’s basketball Friday night.
The final two chaotic days in the month of March, and in the coaching life of Craig Neal at the University of New Mexico, involved Neal, school attorneys and an athletic director who bounced back and forth between obligations at the Final Four in Arizona and running his financially strapped athletics program in Albuquerque.
About one hour before midnight, when the calendar would turn over to April 1 to start a new contract year and guarantee more compensation, the embattled Neal received notice of his firing.
At the end of negotiations, which included discussions of keeping Neal on for next season, the university ultimately felt the question shifted from how it could afford to pay $1 million to fire its basketball coach to whether it could afford not to.
“We were looking at the totality of the program,” UNM athletic director Paul Krebs told the Journal on Saturday at the University of Phoenix Stadium, home to this year’s NCAA FInal Four.
“When I made the comments (on March 10, the day after UNM finished the season with a 17-14 record and a loss in the Mountain West tournament) about retaining Craig … at that time our intention was to retain Craig,” Krebs said. “But we continued to evaluate and assess the situation.”
Krebs, who has had NCAA Selection Committee obligations in Glendale all week, flew back to Albuquerque on Thursday night to talk to Neal and other unnamed university decision makers about Neal’s future as coach.
“There were discussions about what was in the best interest of the university, and there’s no question those involved discussions about retaining Craig, terminating Craig, and a multitude of options,” Krebs said.
Asked who made the call to fire Neal, Krebs said, “we’re a team,” and that any decision that carries such a large financial outcome involves his recommendation and collaboration with others, such as UNM’s acting president and the Board of Regents. Neal was the highest-paid state employee with an annual base salary and compensation package of $950,000.
While some of those discussions included restructuring compensation and buyout terms to keep Neal on board at a lesser financial obligation to UNM, nothing was ever agreed upon by both parties, despite reports online to the contrary.
In the end, Neal’s contract did not change. UNM will pay the buyout in installments of $500,000 this fiscal year and $500,000 next fiscal year.
UNM athletics posted a $1.54 million deficit last fiscal year and reported to the Journal last week significant shortfalls for this fiscal year in ticket revenue compared to budget projections for football, women’s basketball and (by nearly $700,000) in men’s basketball.
Yet Krebs insisted “the expectation is the buyout will be covered by athletics” over the next two years.
“It’s a challenge, but I would say that lost ticket revenue and a declining fan base plays into the decision,” Krebs said. “I think there is a very real expectation because we have such great fans that with great leadership (for the men’s basketball team), we can recoup some of this money through increased ticket sales. … I also think that there is an opportunity to backload the contract with whoever the (next) coach is. There is flexibility with how we may structure the contract.”
A search for a new head coach has already begun. The Journal has learned as many as three interviews with Krebs and potential candidates will take place here Sunday, though Krebs would not comment about any potential candidates.
Neal, who has not responded to a request for comment from the Journal, cleaned out his office at the Rudy Davalos basketball center Saturday after his 10-year career at UNM ended. Six years were as an associate head coach under Steve Alford and four as head coach with a 76-52 record.
Should Neal find another job in college basketball over the next two years, there is what Krebs called a “mitigation clause” in the buyout that would offset some of the money UNM owes Neal.
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 in any fiscal year the school retained him. The contract year started Saturday, which is why talks about his future, and angst among an increasingly frustrated fan base, grew so intense this week.