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.


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