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In the few minutes it took Craig Neal to walk up the ramp and settle down in front of the microphones for his first unofficial-official close-up inside the Pit interview room, New Mexico fans were presented further confirmation that the man picked to succeed Steve Alford was not just Steve Alford in costume, two days after Halloween.

At UCLA, Alford was chosen as the man to replace “the man.” At New Mexico, Neal, still in the midst of his dress rehearsal, is trying to convince fans and media that he is his own man after spending nine years as Alford’s right-hand one. One of the most pressing questions the first-year head coach faced at the news conference announcing his hiring was how he’d be different than his predecessor, since the pair were, basically, conjoined at the hip, in basketball philosophy and temperament.

But on a night when  the Lobos unconvincingly dispatched Eastern New Mexico, there was no doubt that Neal was not Alford. Alford was always a swan during those made-for-local-TV pressers. His hair always coiffed, blazer always buttoned, Alford came in, gave punchy statements and smacked the softball questions lobbed at him out of the park. Alford’s enduring character trait at New Mexico was that he was always sure of himself — too sure of himself.

Neal is an ugly duckling and looks like he’s still not quite convinced he’s the head coach of the Lobos. He walked into that news conference unsure of the format, asking New Mexico’s sports information director, Frank Mercogliano, what to do — if he should give an opening statement before fielding questions. He eventually found his way, and with more practice, Neal should one day ooze of the same hot-seat politesse mastered by his hotsy-totsy best friend.

For now, Neal is more folksy, more conversational, unlike Alford, who was described by a Los Angeles Times columnist as an automaton at his introductory UCLA news conference. Neal is Detective Columbo to Alford’s well-dressed prosecutor.

In court, the high-priced, slick-talking attorneys always get credit for winning slam-dunk cases. But it’s the testimony of expert witnesses and the craftily pieced-together investigations that are foundation of that success. A basketball court isn’t unlike a court of law. And Neal isn’t unlike the unassuming detective, who was always underestimated by his suspects.

But Neal’s understated moments of individualism have been drowned out by the university’s excessive harrumphing.

New Mexico brass spent the better part of eight months trying carefully to craft the Lobos’ post-Alford image by, not highlighting, so much as caricaturizing Neal’s differences. That much was evident at this year’s Lobo Howl, when Neal, in a leather jacket and blue jeans, rode into the Pit on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. His grand entrance was set up by a kitschy commercial in which the coach reached into a closet and grabbed Alford’s iconic cherry blazer, returning it the hanger in favor of leather digs. Neal then blazed down Albuquerque’s streets, finally ending up at the Pit.

Someone should have told New Mexico’s public relations department that the best symbolism is subtle and seamless. This was cymbal-ism — cacophonous banging of a percussion instrument in the hopes that tepid, soft-core fans, mixed in with the hardcore ones, would get the intended message that, “Hey, guys, Steve Alford doesn’t coach at New Mexico, anymore. This is Craig Neal, our new coach, and just in case you didn’t realize, he’s not Steve Alford.”

Give New Mexico fans a bit of credit, would you? Yes, they’re susceptible to bouts of irascibility and irrationality whenever their team is knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by a double-digit seed in its opening round game. But they’re not that thick of head. Ditto for the media, although you’d have to listen in on only one of Neal’s question-and-answer sessions to understand why New Mexico’s platoon of PR reps thought it a good idea to paint Neal is such stark contrast to Alford.

Many of Neal’s days leading up to his team’s first exhibition included the usual media banter, questions about Alford, questions about whether Neal had been in contact with Alford, questions about whether Alford liked his eggs scrambled or sunny-side up. Neal, donning a sunny disposition and channeling the notion that sunshine is the best disinfectant, did his best to patiently answer Alford inquiries, but eventually grew tired of it, telling one reporter “it’s not fair to him, it’s not fair to me” to keep bringing up the old Lobo coach, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

To be fair, these questions are fair, even if some believe them to be “tedious.” As my former New Mexican colleague Will Webber wrote, Neal will always be judged against Alford. That’s the way it is. The whole apples-to-oranges rhetoric doesn’t hold here, or ever, really, because who wants to compare apples to apples? That’s tedious.

If New Mexico wanted to neutralize the analogies, it should have done Neal a favor and left that to him. He didn’t need big-screen bravado to prove he’s not Alford. You could simply see it, from his laid-back disposition in running the team to the Lobos’ more wide-open offensive flair, down to how he carried himself at the presser. You can damn well bet Craig Neal is not Steve Alford.

For New Mexico fans, that might be a good thing.

Days after defiantly wagging his finger at a roomful of reporters and talking about the contractual concessions he made to stay at the University of New Mexico, Steve Alford was gone.

Most people are remembered for first and last impressions. Alford’s introductory news conference was as eventful and glowing as his final days were disingenuous and dumbfounding. The head men’s basketball coach’s swan song at New Mexico will be remembered for a reluctance to eat crow in the aftermath of the Lobos’ embarrassing loss to Harvard in their opening game of the NCAA tournament.

On Wednesday, Alford defensively, even arrogantly, apologized for his team, took swipes at the Pac-12 — his new home — and Jim Rome and guilt-tripped Lobo Nation about details of his contract, which bumped up Alford’s base salary to more than $1.2 million a year and was set to go into effect April 1. By Saturday, he was headed for the West Coast.

“I gave a lot to stay here,” Alford said, days before. “I took away incentives that I’ve made for five consecutive years. Six consecutive years. I took those out of my contract. I think it was a pretty big commitment, not only on the school’s part, but it was a pretty big commitment on my part … to show my loyalty to UNM, and how much I appreciate UNM and how much I want to continue to build this thing.”

Alford drained the reservoir of goodwill he built up over a six-year stay by reneging on his contract in the most snide way possible, agreeing to terms with the Bruins a couple days before his new contract, with a $1 million buyout clause, was set to kick in. More than likely, New Mexico will recoup only $150,000 under the terms of Alford’s old deal.

Alford, alluding to the down-and-dirty deal during a conference call with reporters, knew he exploited a loophole.

“I know it’s not April 1st yet,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m just an Indiana grad that likes basketball. The lawyers will have to get together and figure that out.”

Alford’s former boss, athletic director Paul Krebs, probably knew he’d been swindled, but was calm and poised at a news conference Saturday announcing Alford’s impending departure.

The 48-year-old Alford met with players that morning to inform them he was leaving. Even worse for New Mexico, Alford’s ship-jumping could lead to a mass exodus. At least one player, Alex Kirk, will entertain following his slick-haired, slick-talking coach to Los Angeles.

Alford’s unexpected decision managed to make Krebs a sympathetic figure. The athletic director, it should be said, did everything humanly possible to keep Alford’s eyes from wandering. The administration’s fixation with the success of its basketball program was no more evident than when it poured $60 million into revamping The Pit. Krebs followed up by inking — or so we thought — Alford to a lucrative new deal.

For Alford, the decision is pretty cut and dried. UCLA, once one of the nation’s most storied basketball programs, offered him an express elevator back to big-time coaching stardom. All he has to do is restore John Wooden university’s good name, after some string-bean meager years got Ben Howland axed.

The irony in this, of course, is that what got Alford a new deal at New Mexico is what effectively got Howland, who led the Bruins to three Final Fours, canned.

UCLA won the Pac-12 championship this year, but failed for the fifth straight season to get out of the first week of the NCAA tournament after a 83-63 setback to 11th-seeded Minnesota.

The Lobos regaled fans with unprecedented regular-season success throughout Alford’s stay, but never erased that big looming asterisk of never getting to a Sweet 16. Alford has only won five tournament games in 18 seasons as a head coach, but endeared himself to the community with lip service.

He talked about New Mexico as a destination, not a pit stop, and backed that up by staying put even after his name surfaced as a potential suitor at Missouri and Kansas State. Then, when Lobo fans least expected it, he quietly slipped in the knife.

This, he said, is “the toughest decision that I’ve had to make, maybe ever. That’s because of how much I love this place — UNM, Albuquerque, New Mexico, the fans, the entire set up has been amazing. It really came down to making a decision to have an opportunity to go to UCLA. It’s the pinnacle of college basketball.

“It goes back to the four letters: it’s UCLA.”

You can make the argument that New Mexico has more upside than UCLA, a program whose image has been battered by defections and a paucity of postseason success.

It has missed the NCAA tournament twice the last four years and seen players flee for and sign with other programs, including New Mexico, which landed Drew Gordon, and more recently, Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams. The Bruins fan base isn’t as rabid, either, and Pauley Pavilion was routinely not at capacity in 2012-13.

New Mexico, by comparison, has four Mountain West Conference titles the last six years and has a turnkey facility and the some of the nation’s most manic fans.

Alford called the decision a “leap of faith.”

Perhaps more appropriately, lack of faith from some fans might have compelled Alford to reconsider. Maybe he felt he had reached his glass ceiling at New Mexico, and rather than risk overstaying a season too long,  like he did at Iowa, he bolted. Say what you will about Alford, he has impeccable timing.

And, apparently, enough swagger to convince UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero that the Bruins aren’t in for what became the acceptable norm at New Mexico.

“I’m about building programs — not teams, not seasons, but programs,” Alford said. “Nobody understands pressure any more than I do.”

“He’s not the kind of guy that will shy away from what UCLA. basketball is all about,” Guerrero said. “He’ll handle the expectations with dignity, with understanding and with class.”

Exactly the way he handled his exit at New Mexico.

Avilucea is a former staff writer for the Santa Fe New Mexican and a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, N.M.

Alford’s UNM days went from gracious to graceless

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The net, a celebratory staple that’s dangled conspicuously from Steve Alford’s neck the last few seasons, is starting to look more like an albatross for New Mexico’s most revered and recognizable sports figure.

Alford, now 5-7 in the NCAA tournament, is quickly developing a reputation at New Mexico as a great regular-season coach whose teams flame out regularly in the NCAA tournament. This year, Alford’s third-seeded Lobos went from the national punch bowl, with everyone drinking their Kool-Aid, to the national punch line after falling spectacularly to No. 14 seed Harvard.

Worse, Harvard’s Tommy Amaker put a clown suit on Alford by beating the Lobos at their own game. UNM, buoyed all year by its stingy defense, should have licked its proverbial chops when Amaker opted for stall ball. The Crimson, efficiently milking clock, turned the contest into a meat-grinding war of attrition.

Fans looking for an act of contrition from Alford at Wednesday’s end-of-season news conference were sorely disappointed. Alford, alternating between amused and perturbed, doubled-down on the ignominy by flinging barbs far and wide during several testy exchanges with reporters.

He scoffed, bemoaned and danced his way through questions about the Lobos’ tournament meltdown, the ramifications of the Mountain West Conference’s collective 2-5 tournament record and whether news of his new contract distracted his team the most crucial week of the season.

Too often, Alford’s 31-minute, question-and-answer session devolved into self-congratulations and sarcasm.

Asked what Lobos fans should expect next year from a team returning four, and potentially five of its starters, if Tony Snell’s NBA water-testing doesn’t pan out, Alford said:  “What do you want me to promise the national championship?”

No, Steve, maybe just a trip out of the second round.

Alford talked about UNM’s three championships and invented accolades and trophies, the epitome of Little League.

“We never lost two games in a row,” he said. “How many teams did that?”

He feigned, twisted and bristled when a reporter brought up radio host Jim Rome’s criticism and a Wall Street Journal report that suggested the MWC is overrated.

“Jim Rome? We’re gonna go to Jim Rome,” Alford said. “Wall Street Journal? So Wall Street Journal’s heavy into sports?

“There’s no way, if you’ve got any basketball intellect at all, would you say we’ve had a bad season.”

Then King Alford did the unthinkable. He asked Lobo-dom to bow down, kiss the MWC championship rings and settle for blue collar rather than blue blood.

“UNM is not Duke. UNM is not Indiana or [North] Carolina or UCLA,” Alford said, almost apologizing for the Lobos. “That’s not who we are yet. If we develop into that, I’ll be the first to jump through hula hoops in great praise. But who we are is pretty doggone good.”

Yes, after moribund years under Fran Fraschilla and Ritchie McKay, Alford raised the team’s national profile. The Lobos, never feast or famine, have won more than 20 games every year since his arrival in 2007.

Problem is, the Lobos are consistently good and simultaneously not good enough.

Three years ago, the Darington Hobson-led Lobos barely escaped Montana in the first round only to get outhustled and outmuscled in a glaring round-of-32 setback to Washington. Louisville dispatched UNM last year, 59-56.

Alford's teams teams have consistently cut down MWC nets and messed up Las Vegas bets in the NCAA tournament.

Alford’s teams have cut down MWC nets and messed up Las Vegas bets in the NCAA tournament.

In fairness, the Lobos haven’t made a Sweet 16 in the modern format, but it’s not delusional to expect incremental progress. Instead the Lobos find themselves on a plateau, albeit an extremely high one.

“We haven’t had any valleys,” Alford said. “We haven’t had any dips.”

Alford, though, revealed himself as a poor man’s Bobby Knight with far less entertaining bluster and NCAA tournament luster.

His smoke-and-mirrors diversion tactics reeked of self-serving entitlement. Here was a coach, with a subpar NCAA tournament record, growing irritated, and combative, because he had to explain why, despite so many signs to the contrary, the Lobos are perpetually on the cusp of the Sweet 16.

“It’s not so much a Sweet 16 thing,” Alford said. “I haven’t lived here for 40, 50 years. When we all of a sudden start putting all our laurels on, ‘Oh, we have to get to the Sweet 16. We have to get the Elite Eight. We have to get to the Final Four.’ What is that?”

Some call that natural progression. Alford wants “50 Shades of Grey” in a black-and-white college basketball world. Like it or not, the march to March is irrelevant in March. Put another way, it doesn’t matter how many wins Alford and Co. stockpile during the season if the music cuts out early in the Big Dance.

“It doesn’t devalue us as a staff,” Alford said. “It doesn’t devalue us as a program. If that’s the case, we should just bag the first four months [of the season]. It’s the body of work that gets you into the NCAA tournament.”

Suffice it to say, the Lobos have a Maxim model’s body. And Dick Vitale’s face.

Alford, summing up UNM’s season, said: “NCAA, disappointment. Season, phenomenal.” Ditto for Alford.

Keep wearing that net, coach.

Avilucea is a former staff writer for the Santa Fe New Mexican and a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, N.M. Continue reading

UNM’s Steve Alford short on tourney wins, long on ego

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