In 2013, Athletic director Paul Krebs announced Neal’s hiring with a one-word tweet. “Noodles.” “Noodles’” tenure could also be summed up in one word: “Impasta.”
The Craig Neal love affair is over in New Mexico.
That much is clear after Cullen Neal, the now-former Lobo point guard who created his own weather while at UNM, has decided to transfer schools.
This followed, predictably, after his father, New Mexico head men’s basketball coach Craig Neal, told media gathered at his Feb. 11 news conference his son had received death threats.
“The only change that would help him is if he’s not playing here,” Craig Neal said. “He’s wound tight. He doesn’t look well.”
Similarly, the only change that would help UNM is if Craig Neal joins his son on the way out the door.
Really, it’s for his own good.
Albuquerque, a high desert surrounded by the Sandias, is known for having a moderate climate. The media glare isn’t quite as intense as places like New York or Los Angeles.
But even in the mild-mannered Duke City, the temperature following the Lobos’ 17-15 season has become too hot for a thin-skinned Midwesterner like Craig Neal.
The dynamic daddy-and-son duo has been burned to a crisp by criticism from a downright Neal-istic fan base which doesn’t like the direction the program is headed following the Lobos missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.
The most that can be said for Craig Neal in his time at New Mexico is that he has been father of the year when fans want him to be coach of the year.
He has been overprotective of his son and overly critical of just about everyone else on the team.
Neal scoffed at a reporter during the same February news conference when he was asked whether he would bring his son off the bench.
“For what?” Neal said. “I’m not going to bring him off the bench. He’s my best point guard. I’m not going to do that. I would bring him off the bench to take more confidence away from him?”
Neal has been prone to fits ever since he took over as head coach in a basketball-crazed state. At his introductory news conference, he promised to finish the Lobos’ “unfinished business.”
Now New Mexico fans, deflated like an old, raggedy basketball, are just finished with the lip service.
Neal has only himself to blame. Whether it was real love or just a rebound, jilted New Mexico fans clamored for Neal when Steve Alford left for UCLA in 2013.
Neal had all the intangibles to succeed as a head coach. He spent nine seasons as an assistant under Alford. The local media sung his praises as a recruiter who helped New Mexico land Los Alamos’ Alex Kirk.
(Similar things were said about a certain football coach.)
And for a while, Neal had plenty of goodwill stockpiled. Kirk’s allegiance to Neal was so strong he threatened to transfer if the Lobos did not elevate Neal to head coach.
Athletic director Paul Krebs, cajoled and coerced by Lobo nation, announced Neal’s hiring with a one-word tweet.
These days, “Noodles’” tenure with the Lobos could also be summed up in one word: “Impasta.”
His missteps have been plenty and public.
On Senior Day, he blamed sparingly used senior walk-ons for a double-digit home loss to league-leading San Diego State.
He played the sympathy card by blaming Cullen’s pedestrian play on polemic fans’ alleged death threats.
It backfired when The Albuquerque Journal’s Mark Smith reported Craig Neal never mentioned anything about death threats against his son when interviewed by UNM police.
Some parents use their kids as meal tickets. In this case, Neal apparently had no qualms about using his son as a human shield for criticism so he could continue putting food on the family table.
It almost worked.
New Mexico fans, boisterous, boastful and brainless, are an easy scapegoat. They’re unrealistic arm-chair coaches and pathetic apologists.
There’s no middle ground with fanaticism, a horrific evil that has underpinned some of the worst events in human history.
The omnipresence of social media makes it worse. In the Twitter era, there’s a troll under every bridge, from Montano to the Rio Grande Gorge.
But love them or loath them, Lobo fans have always packed The Pit even before it became WisePies Arena.
Now, even the diehards have wised up.
Attendance is down. Morale is down. Neal’s stock, which soared after his first year, is down.
The would-be suitors, Tulsa, South Florida and Virginia Tech, have moved on and found better brides.
Krebs has been left holding a $950,000 bouquet.
The honeymoon has been overcome by harsh realities of marriage.
And the reality is despite Krebs’ pronouncement on Twitter that Neal is here to stay, this rocky marriage appears headed for divorce. UNM and Craig Neal were staying together for the kid.
And now that he’s headed for another college, they can parts ways.
File this one under irreconcilable differences between Craig Neal and the fans.
The gravest sin any coach in Albuquerque can commit is to fuck up the basketball program, the quasi-professional crown jewel.
The program is one of the few at the university that makes money, in a time of diminishing returns for college athletics across the country.
The university has poured endless resources into making University Arena a paragon of pride for a state that does not have a professional sports franchise.
More and more, the university is getting less and less bang for its buck.
Neal is a prime example.
Forget that he hired Cody Hopkins, the suspended New Mexico’s director of basketball operations who is being investigated for shady ATM withdrawals worth more than $50,000.
White-collar crime or cherry-and-silver larceny, it’s criminal that Neal, the MWC’s highest-paid coach, has contractually bilked the university out of $950,000 a year – $55,882.35 per win.
The buck stops with the head coach. UNM can’t pay Neal another buck otherwise it risks mutiny from the fans.
The only thing holding up this divorce is finances. There’s that sticky buyout clause in Neal’s contract forcing UNM to eat $1 million unless it finds cause to fire Noodles.
Krebs fell in love with Neal after one season, inking him to a multi-year contract extension after the Lobos went 27-7 and made the NCAA tournament in his maiden voyage.
Krebs needs to admit he made a mistake when he arranged this marriage.
First it was the coach-beater, Mike Locksley.
Now the AD hired a basketball coach who can’t beat anyone.
Fans forgave Krebs for Locksley. The bedraggled football program is the perpetual bridesmaid in Albuquerque.
When Krebs raced to the altar to give away New Mexico to a man who vowed to be more faithful than Alford, he didn’t realize Craig Neal was just a great father.
And an unchaste has-been.