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Analysis: Lobo hoops coaching search facing new challenges

Friday, Gov. Susana Martinez used her line-item veto power to remove state funding for New Mexico colleges and universities from a Legislature-approved spending package.

It’s certainly premature to think the funding won’t actually make its way to the state’s institutions of higher learning, among them the University of New Mexico, where 58 percent of its funding comes from the state. But the reality is until the solution comes during an upcoming special session, universities can’t move forward with submitting their 2018 fiscal year budgets by May 1 as they are obligated to do.

So how does that affect the ongoing search for the next University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach, who until Craig Neal was fired shortly before midnight on March 31 was the highest-paid public employee in the state?

“No impact,” UNM Athletic Director Paul Krebs told the

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Journal in an email.

Earlier in the week, Krebs assured local media that resources won’t be in the way of finding quality candidates for the job.

“I’m very, very confident that we will get the right person and that money will not be an issue,” Krebs said.

But, as the Journal has learned over the past week from a combination of coaches and sports agents, the Lobo job might not be exactly what some candidates thought it would be, and finances are a major reason.

After all, UNM athletics is coming off a $1.54 million deficit last year and failed to meet ticket-revenue projections this fiscal year (2016-17) in any of its three revenue sports (football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball). And Krebs told the Journal last week a handful of layoffs in his department are coming July 1.

While all things are relative, and the Lobo job is still considered one of the better ones outside the “Power 6” structure of college basketball’s top spending six conferences, it is far from where it was a little more than four years ago when the UNM agreed to terms with Steve Alford on a contract that could have reached $2 million per year in base salary, compensation and incentive pay if all bonuses were met.

Of course, Alford left for UCLA, his assistant, Neal, was promoted at $750,000 per year, and that jumped to $950,000 annually in 2014, along with the $1 million buyout that he will now receive over the next two years.

Now, some suggest what’s being offered isn’t near the compensation package Neal was receiving and that other concerns might have an impact on the candidate pool.

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The team’s attendance is still strong compared to league peers, but dropping. The season-ticket base, and Lobo Club donations that come with that, are struggling. The program is coming off its lowest average mark in the 51-season history of the Pit. UNM is one of only two or three Mountain West teams without charter flights for midweek games during conference play, adding to time away from practice and the classroom. At least four other league schools are paying $700,000 annually or more, and at least 60 Division I programs in the country are paying $1 million per year.

All that, coupled with the uncertainty of the state’s financial climate, absence of a permanent school president and political influence from outside the athletics department, is starting to circulate around the coaching fraternity.

Krebs won’t say what he’s offering, nor would he answer who or how many candidates he has formally interviewed or considers finalists. The UNM Board of Regents, despite having a role in the firing and hiring of the Lobos coach and a responsibility to oversee the best financial interests of the university, has continued to avoid answering questions or facing public scrutiny about its role in it all.

Bigger coaching names such as Tom Crean, Mark Fox and Tim Miles quickly faded from the social media chatter. The current batch of names drawing the most chatter after confirmed contact with Krebs are ones such as Scott Cross (UT-Arlington), Joe Dooley (Florida Gulf Coast) and even Albuquerque Academy graduate and current San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego, who was reported by some local media on Thursday night to have been offered and accepted the job (UNM has publicly denied those reports).

Cross and Dooley both make less than $300,000 annually, and Borrego is the one candidate that seems to miss out on the one criteria Krebs insisted he wanted most – recent Division I head coaching experience.

Without Krebs or regents communicating about the process to the public, uncertainty abounds. Candidate names are left to float in the world of social media to be either torn to shreds or placed on pedestals without any real context of how they may fit what the school is looking for.

On Thursday, at least four people told the Journal a deal was done – the Journal neither confirmed nor reported any of them – with candidates Borrego, Dooley and even one suggesting Krebs was in Dallas on Thursday finalizing a deal to bring former NBA and college coach Larry Brown out of retirement with Dooley being a part of a package deal to be his “coach in waiting” and take over the UNM job after a few seasons when Brown wanted to retire again.

Such speculation is not uncommon for coaching searches, especially for a program with as passionate a fan base as UNM has built over the past half century. But until a cherry blazer is actually being placed on the next coach at his introductory press conference, the uncertainty around what exactly Krebs and the Regents are actually selling the Lobo job as to potential candidates will remain a mystery in a state facing plenty of financial uncertainty.

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