By Daniel Libit
It’s over. Even if it’s not over yet. Even if it might not be over for a while — that surely has less to do with the man in question than the exigencies of his situation.
Craig Neal’s problems as a college basketball coach have by now become self-evident: the mounting losses, for starters, but really the entire package — the cockeyed public statements; the scapegoating; the sophistry; the pretense; the lack of discipline; the thin skin (that’s worse than Steve Alford’s, if that’s possible).
At New Mexico, Neal has presided over a staff that has been in a perpetual state of flux; over successive teams in retrograde; and over a son who was compelled to transfer out of his father’s program. It is a testament to many uncomfortable truths (about the New Mexico Lobos, yes, but also about college athletics, in general) that Neal has been able to noodle himself into his high-paying, state-subsidized job, with so little contingent accountability. And the picture does not get prettier once the curtain is lifted.
“Craig Neal, known affectionately across the nation as ‘Noodles’…,” reads the head coach’s official bio on GoLobos.com. But that kind of praise tells only a part of the story.
Despite Neal’s semblance of fair-haired, Indianan affability, NMFishbowl.com has found, he has also left a long trail of rancor and recriminations in his path as he voraciously careered from Toronto, to Iowa City, to Albuquerque.
This story is based, in part, on two dozen interviews with sources who have known Neal at various stages of his career — including coaches, players, parents, boosters, pro executives and administrators. In many cases, the sources agreed to talk only on the condition they not be identified, in order to speak candidly. Through a UNM Athletics spokesperson, Neal declined to be interviewed for this story, or respond to a detailed list of questions addressing the various claims made about him here.
While circumstance might have delivered him as Alford’s “no-brainer” (in the words of Hunter Greene) replacement, Neal’s history suggests that his present struggles are also not a surprise. And it was most certainly knowable, back in September 2014, when UNM Athletics Director Paul Krebs extended Neal’s contract and its bloodsucking, $1 million buyout clause through 2020. As bad as that deal may have looked to outside observers at the time, it should have looked even worse to someone in the position of being privy.
“The number one reason why I left [UNM] is because of Craig Neal,” said one former Lobo coach. “He is just a vindictive, jealous person, and he…really played off (Alford).”
Echoing the sentiment of others, a former colleague described Neal as a “whack job”: loosey-goosey and lighthearted one moment; raging and unhinged the next. “In a flip of a coin he was a different person,” said a former player of Neal’s. “Some of the fights he had with different players were so random and so petty,” said another former player. “He can switch up on you real quick,” said a third former player. Even those trying to pay Neal a compliment sometimes end up feeding into the critiques. “Coach Neal is crazy, but in a good way,” offered former Lobo guard Curtis Dennis.
“He is the life of the bar,” said one well-placed Lobo booster, recalling various encounters with Neal after he had a few drinks. One such time occurred during a Lobo donor retreat in Ruidoso several years back, where Neal, then still an assistant, held court at a casino lounge, regaling the audience with the same, old stories of how he got his nickname. The next morning, the booster said, “Noodles” showed up at the golf course, looking worse for the ware, but nevertheless ordered the hair of the dog and shot under par. On the bus ride home, the booster said, Alford quietly confided to some of the attendees the special term he used for Neal’s flourishes of lubricated jubilation: “Noodlizing.”
The stories of Noodlizing, as it were, could fill a college basketball media guide. And while this reputation endears Neal to some, others view it as a core weakness for a millionaire paid to lecture college athletes about discipline.
One constant refrain spoken by those who have collided with Neal is that, whatever his professional talents, he is his own worst enemy. But now he is the University New Mexico’s problem, as well, sucking the money and the marrow out of Lobo basketball at a make-or-break moment in the program’s history. His base of support continues to shrink, along with the crowds (and the revenue) at The Pit. Even TheLoboLair.com, the popular UNM fan site and pro-Neal Pravda, has recently begun beating the drum about replacement options.
On the positive side of the ledger, Neal’s “basketball mind” gets high marks. He is regarded as a hard worker, a zealous pursuer of talent, and ingratiating in a certain kind of way. He has friends in high places (and is certain to let you know about them), as well as a number of adoring former players, who credit him for their success. But, over the course of his coaching career, Neal has also incurred the wrath of many others in his presence, who regard him as careless, two-faced, and indiscreetly self-serving, and have long awaited his eventual comeuppance.
It was almost four years ago that Neal first donned the cherry-red blazer and fought through tears, as he accepted the mantle of UNM basketball. His wife, Janet, and oldest son Cullen, the basketball scion, smiled from the front row, as a group of Lobo players stood nearby in a unified show of support.
Neal was introduced to the crowd by Krebs, whose Lobo résumé was, to that point, marred by the erstwhile hiring of the worst college football coach in America. But while Krebs had gone out on a bit of limb to snag Mike Locksley, the former offensive coordinator at Illinois, promoting Neal from within seemed to be the safe play for basketball.
Still, after Alford’s decampment for UCLA, Krebs didn’t instantly anoint Neal for the head job, leaving the impression that he was not entirely sold on the successorship. Several sources told me that Krebs had initially hoped to reprise the Alford hiring, by offering a cool, Mountain West Conference cushion to another high-major coach on the hot seat. Three sources told NMFishbowl.com that one such name being floated was Anthony Grant, the one-time Virginia Commonwealth coach who had plateaued at Alabama. Grant, now an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, did not respond to a request for comment. Krebs also did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment for this story.
But at Neal’s introductory press conference, Krebs insisted that any perceived hesitation was just due diligence in practice, and ultimately proved the merits of the selection: “We don’t have the luxury of making decisions with our emotions,” Krebs said. “We have to make decisions based on facts.”
Juxtaposed the polished but prickly Alford, Neal’s maiden voyage in front of the cameras that afternoon was refreshing, charming even. “This is probably one of the happiest days of my life, between my two sons being born,” Neal said, choking up for the first of several good cries. He had yet to publicly unveil the big yellow school bus that he would repeatedly throw his players under; or his spurious form of taking “responsibility”; or his own special brand of peevishness.
All would eventually be revealed in due course. But at that moment, you could forgive a casual Lobo fan for feeling lucky that Neal hadn’t been hired away, especially given all that had been ascribed to him as the Lobos’ top assistant. He was, purportedly, the real brains behind the operation: the recruiting guru, the offensive coordinator, the coach who drew up the plays during key timeouts.
New Mexico’s decision to hire Craig “Noodles” Neal is about the smartest move of the current coaching cycle. Way to promote from within!
— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) April 3, 2013
Without the stringency of Alford, the thought was that Neal’s laissez-faire approach would see UNM to sweet, new success: he would get more exciting players to come; they would play a more exciting brand of basketball; and all would be glorious.
“When he first got the job, I thought he was going to do really well,” said former New Mexico guard Nate Garth, who played for the Lobos from 2008-2010. “He can really gel with the team off the court and he is a really smart guy on the floor. I thought he would keep the shit going.”
But rather, the shit has hit the fan and splattered all over WisePies Arena. One could say that it was impossible to see this coming, except that it was 20 years in the making.
In 1996, Neal, the former George Tech star, landed a scouting job with the Toronto Raptors. The organization’s top scout, Jim Kelly, had known Neal from their days in Germany, where Kelly was a coach and Neal had played professionally for a time.
“He wanted to be a coach, for sure,” Kelly, now with the Dallas Mavericks, told me. “His father was a coach. He always talked about coaching.”
More specifically, Neal made it well known that he intended to become an NBA head coach, and sooner rather than later.
Neal would be with the Raptors for a total of seven seasons, toggling between the roles of a scout and a low-level assistant. But arguably, his most memorable work was in that very first year, when he prospected a high school star named Tracy McGrady, who was playing at Mt. Zion Christian Academy, in North Carolina.
Neal, who had been living in Atlanta, became the Raptors’ point person for McGrady, who Toronto ended up selecting with the ninth pick of the 1997 NBA Draft. While the decision was ultimately that of Isaiah Thomas, then the Raptors’ president, Neal has long claimed it as the feather in his cap. For two decades running, Neal has been telling basketball reporters the tale about his virtuouso performance in discovering the future NBA star. Here’s him waxing airily to the Washington Post in 1997; here’s him taking Jonathan Abrams down memory lane in his recent book, “Boys Among Men”:
“Craig Neal, Toronto’s scout, watched McGrady play seven straight times. Neal gave McGrady rave reviews when he reported back to Isiah Thomas and insisted the Raptors find a way to draft him. “A lot of people didn’t do as much homework as we did,” Neal said. “They didn’t see him enough. Once it came out that he was going to come out, everybody was scrambling.”
Make no mistake: several top Raptors executives of the time, who spoke with NMFishbowl.com, supported the idea that Neal was instrumental in the team’s McGrady pick. But as a formative accomplishment, it was also a problematic one: convincing Neal, from the very beginning, that he knew better than everyone else.
In 2000, the Raptors hired Hall-of-Famer Lenny Wilkens as head coach, and Neal was promoted to the last coaching spot on the bench. He joined Dick Helm, Wilkens’ longtime top assistant, who had once coached Neal in the NBA Summer League.
Over the next three years, according to a source close to Wilkens, Neal repeatedly clashed with the head coach in a way that seemed like he was trying to undermine Wilkens’ authority. The source thought Neal was trying to angle for a promotion — perhaps, even for the head coaching job itself — in the event of a shakeup. Through a spokesperson, Wilkens declined to comment for this story. Others involved in the Raptors at the time described the Neal/Wilkens dynamic in milder terms.
“Craig always did feel that he was an outstanding coach — he was very knowledgeable, very good,” Helm told me. “And the second part of that is that I think he would really all along like to be a head coach somewhere. He was an assistant who would really like to be a head coach. And I will leave it at that.”
Meanwhile, several sources in the Raptors organization recalled Neal’s “colorful” character and hankering for the nightlife.
In an interview with NMFishbowl.com, Glen Grunwald, then the Raptors general manager, made note of Neal’s conspicuous “off-court personality,” saying the young assistant “would tend to do some bizarre types of things, going out after games.”
“I thought it was all positive,” Grunwald said, without providing specifics. “But you could always get a good story about Noodles.” Others, however, thought Neal, by then in his mid-30s, was trying too hard to live the life of the NBA star he never had been.
Following Wilkens’ firing in 2003, Neal was demoted back to scouting, where he lasted for one more season, before being let go in an organizational house-cleaning. Two and a half weeks later, he landed at the University of Iowa as Alford’s top assistant, bringing with him an NBA résumé and, in the minds of some, a preening sense of superiority.
“(Iowa) had a pretty good run for a couple of years, and, all of a sudden, here comes this floppy-haired, expensive-suit guy, who is tall and all I heard [about] is that he’s a two-handicap [golfer] and Jon Barry is his best friend,” said a source close to the Iowa program.
The Alford-Neal coaching duo struck many as an example of strange bedfellows, but there were some noticeable similarities between the childhood friends: they were both from Indiana; both pronounced Christians; and both strikingly vain — especially about their appearance. But whereas Alford’s presentation was traditional and clean-shaven, Neal evinced a style that was, at once, more dashing and disheveled — Gordon Gekko, but after the stock starts plummeting.
“Steve was always well-groomed, and so was Craig, but he was different well-groomed,” said Billy Garrett, who served as an assistant at Iowa during Alford’s final season.
Alford, forged as a player in the deranged boot camp of Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, was a classic coaching despot. Neal, on the other hand, was mercurial: though he relished the role of “good cop”, he could also be prone to quantum fits of stack-blowing.
According to multiple Hawkeye sources, Neal and Alford quickly formed a two-person clique, regularly secluding themselves in Alford’s office to the exclusion of the rest of the staff. This dynamic, those sources said, caused an immediate and profound strain in the team, which was further inflamed by Neal’s high-handedness.
“Alford needs a dominant personality around him,” said one source close to the situation. “(Neal) is a dominant personality. His whole thing is: you need me worse than I need you.”
Alford may have been the drill master with a whistle, sources said, but Neal was the control freak. “He didn’t want anybody having any say other than him,” said a source. Even Garrett, who remains fond of Neal, said there was an obvious difference when it came to the two top coaches’ willingness to delegate.
“Steve didn’t micromanage,” said Garrett, now an assistant at DePaul. ”He wouldn’t stand over your shoulder… Craig might be the guy [asking], ‘Are you doing it? Have you checked on that?’”
Years later, Neal would acknowledge his challenge in delegating while head coach at UNM.
The other main complaint that would emerge at Iowa was Neal’s zest for self-promotion. Despite his aw-shucks protestations, people around him said he spent a lot of time, indeed too much time, cultivating relationships with national basketball reporters, trying to convince them of his coaching brilliance and recruiting prowess.
The 2004-05 season, Neal’s first, was a capricious period of highs and very deep lows at Iowa. Midway through, star player Pierre Pierce was dismissed from the program after being charged with sexual assault. Two years before, Alford had allowed Pierce to return to the team, following a sexual assault charge in an entirely separate case. Alford’s decision to give Pierce a second chance was widely seen as prioritizing the success of his team over the safety of the campus. (Pierce was eventually convicted in the second case and sentenced to prison).
On the court, the Hawkeyes put up decent results, finishing 7-9 in conference play, but nevertheless still earned at at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Iowa faced Cincinnati in the first round.
“They have two legends on their bench,” Bob Huggins, then Cincinnati’s coach, joked to reporters before the game. “Steve, naturally, and Craig Neal who thinks he’s a legend.”
The comment hit home with some in the Hawkeye program.
“It was a joke,” one former player told me, “but I remember reading that thinking it was true.”
Iowa lost the game.
The next season, Iowa posted its best record under Alford, taking the Big Ten title and earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But as a harbinger for things to come in Loboland, the team would be upset by the No. 14 seed, Northwestern State, in the first round.
In April 2006, Neal interviewed for the head coaching job at Ball State, the school his dad played for, located in Muncie, Ind., the town Neal was born in. That job ultimately went to Ronny Thompson, son of legendary Georgetown Hoyas Coach John Thompson. It would be the first of many head coaching jobs that Neal would fail to land over the next eight seasons.
While the previous two Iowa teams had largely been built with in-state talent, the local recruiting pool had started to ebb by the time Neal arrived. Not a worry, Alford insisted: with Neal leading the way, the Hawkeyes would now be able to land top recruits from around the country. But while Neal was able to procure one such player in Tyler Smith — a four-star forward from Tennessee, who was playing a year of prep ball in Virginia — the pipe dreams of Parade All-Americans didn’t materialize.
Neal’s third season alongside Alford was a sharp comedown, as Iowa went 17-14 and failed to reach any post-season tournament. Between its on-court mediocrity, Alford’s mishandling of the Pierce fiasco, and a deficit of goodwill between the head coach and the school’s donor base, it was presumed Alford was destined for dismissal, had UNM not swooped in for the rescue. While Alford left Iowa a publicly reviled figure, Neal had done a commensurate amount of galling, behind the scenes.
“At that level, you are who you are,” said the source close to the Hawkeyes, “but you also are how you look, and how you carry yourself, and he always had that [look of], ‘I don’t give a shit. I am going to do it my way.’”
Mired in the doldrums of Ritchie McKay’s tenure, New Mexico was eager to hire a coach with a name like Alford’s. So willing, in fact, that the school also agreed to pay Neal $250,000 a year to join as second in command, making him, at the time, one of the highest compensated basketball assistants in the country. It was an investment predicated on the notion that the Alford-Neal combo was manifestly greater than the sum of its parts.
To help fill out the staff, Neal enlisted a friend, Ryan Miller, then an assistant at Pepperdine. Neal had counseled Miller’s brother, NBA player Mike Miller, through his early pro days, and had become close with the family. Ryan Miller came to UNM with a rabbit in his mouth, a talented swing forward he had been recruiting to Pepperdine, named Darington Hobson.
Eventually, after two years in junior college, Hobson would make his way to Albuquerque, where he would become the anchor recruit of the Alford era, winning the 2010 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. Much of program’s other important recruitment were carried out first by assistant Chris Walker — a former Villanova basketball star and Houston AAU coach — and later Wyking Jones, who came to UNM from Nike’s west coast grassroots program.
As for Neal, his personnel work was primarily confined to the Los Alamos seven-foot center Alex Kirk, who the coach relentlessly bird-dogged in a high-stakes effort to protect the home turf. Kirk, in the end, chose New Mexico over Arizona.
But arguably Neal’s more important recruiting was another New Mexican: Gov. Susana Martinez, who had become a big Lobo fan during the early part of her first term. According to sources, Martinez’s camp had not taken kindly to Alford, who was notoriously aloof when it came to the work of civic back-scratching. Neal, on the other hand, was keen to mingle.
“Coach Neal was the more social guy and would say ‘hi’ to the governor, and would talk to (her) when he was an assistant coach, and they started this relationship,” said a source close to the situation. When Alford left, the source said, Martinez “pushed hard” for Neal’s hire. (Martinez’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Indeed, the governor sounded positively starstruck when speaking publicly about her relationship with Neal.
“He came over to the [governor’s mansion] – he and his wife came over, and Mr. Krebs and his wife came over,” Martinez told the Albuquerque Journal in 2013. “It’s like having your next door neighbor over. It’s just so not pretentious – just normal conversations. Just an easygoing guy. We sat down we ate, we talked, we laughed. In my mind, I forgot I was sitting with the head coach of the UNM basketball team.”
Given all the disharmony that has come to define the current relationship between UNM and the governor’s administration, sources say it has greatly redounded to the basketball coach’s benefit that Martinez is so enamored with him.
At New Mexico, Neal reprised the same deputy role under Alford that he had carved out at Iowa — which included the rankling of colleagues.
“(Alford), once you confront him, he always backs down,” said a former UNM staffer. “He is a barking dog behind the gate. And Neal is the guy who if the gate is closed, he will come back and bite you.”
Garth said he got along with Neal fine, but understands why the coach could rub some the wrong way.
“I liked him, but one thing you have to understand is he came from the NBA,” said Garth, who transferred to UC Santa Barbara after his sophomore year. “He would always smile in your face, no matter what, it was always a smile in your face, lighthearted. But at times, he wasn’t always in your corner — maybe he would [still] smile in your face.”
Garth continued, “He had that business side that he brought to college basketball. He had some shit to him, some confidence, some swagger — ‘I am Craig Neal, I played at the highest level’ — he had this persona. But he really cared about all the players.”
Neal’s relationship with his players would be put to the ultimate test upon Alford’s departure, where his promotion was precisely tied to his ability to keep the team intact.
Both Kirk and point guard Hugh Greenwood had been given green lights by Alford to join him at UCLA; Greenwood and forward Cameron Bairstow had also raised the specter that they might return home to Australia to play professionally; and Tony Snell was preparing to ditch his final year of college to enter the NBA Draft.
Kirk made clear that while his return to UNM was not guaranteed, it would only happen if Neal was head coach. Neal, likewise, convinced Snell to hold off on any NBA announcement until after UNM’s hiring had been made. Snell agreed to do him one better, publicly suggesting he could return to the Lobos to play for Neal his senior season. This was never likely, and particularly magnanimous of the player, given that a rift had emerged between the parties.
In 2014, I wrote a story about Snell’s path to the NBA, in which Sherika Brown, Snell’s mother, strikingly laid bare her distaste for Alford. What wasn’t reported at the time was Brown’s collission with Neal: According to her account, Neal had been incredibly encouraging about her son’s NBA prospects, beginning in his sophomore season. Throughout Snell’s junior year, Brown told me, Neal would call regularly to regale her with the growing list of NBA suitors. But in the eleventh hour, when Alford made clear his desire for Snell to return to UNM, Brown said Neal completely reversed himself and played down the League’s interest in her son.
“That is the day I lost respect for Coach Neal,” Brown told me two years ago.
The day after April Fool’s Day, 2013, Neal become the 20th head men’s basketball coach of the University of New Mexico. He was given a five-year contract worth $750,000 per year. While Snell soon declared for the NBA Draft, the rest of the key Lobo players, including Kendall Williams, the MWC player of the year, decided to return.
“Craig has always been patient,” Mark Price, his former Georgia Tech teammate, would tell the Journal later that year. “Nine years is a long time, and it’s overdue.”
But patience really had little to do with it: just two years before, Neal had tried to land the Georgia Tech job in a package deal with Price. While at New Mexico, he had also pursued, or been involved in, head coach openings at Toledo, Missouri State, Colorado State, as well as an assistant’s job with the Milwaukee Bucks. It was not so much that he had waited for the New Mexico job, but that Neal couldn’t land a desirable one elsewhere.
There is a meme out there — largely based on the programs at Butler, Gonzaga, and to a lesser extent, BYU and Northern Iowa — that mid-majors sustain their success by internal advancement. That, of course, ignores the trajectory of programs like VCU, Dayton, Creighton, and Wichita State, who improved themselves with outside hires. In any case, continuity was always the strongest card in Neal’s head coaching deck.
“Steve set the bar really high, and I’m going to jump over it,” Neal said three weeks after his hiring, at a Lobo pep rally. The team’s mantra, Neal announced, would be “Unfinished Business,” a reference to the previous year’s NCAA tournament loss to No. 14 seed Harvard.
At his inaugural Lobo Howl, Neal rolled down the ramp on his Harley Davidson, promising to bring a new panache and zip to UNM hoops. The team would run more, get out in the open court. This seemed to ignore the fact that the starting line-up was anchored by two talented but plodding big men, in Kirk and Bairstow; the beginning of the season would provide an early lesson on Neal’s hard-headedness when it came to what sounded good, and what actually worked.
That was particularly true when it came to the Neal family dynamic. Three days after Snell declared for the NBA, St. Mary’s College agreed to release Cullen Neal from his scholarship, allowing him to play for his dad at UNM without having to sit out a transfer year. “I think it’s going to be one of the best experiences of my life,” the younger Neal told CBSSports.com.
Craig Neal promised that he wasn’t taking the job of coaching his son lightly, and had done some deep contemplating on the matter. He told the Journal he had sought counsel from others who had coached their sons in college, including Alford, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger and Creighton’s Greg McDermott. “Nothing changes,” Cullen Neal told the Journal. “This is all one big family.”
But the Neals quickly came to subsume the Lobos. In addition to Craig and Cullen, Neal’s wife Janet also became a frequent fixture at team practices, which only heightened the behind-the-scenes drama. Sources describe team practices frequently derailing into sidebar squabbles between husband, wife and son.
Even before then, Janet Neal was a known quantity in town, having developed a less-than-flattering reputation for her vociferous sideline antics during Cullen’s Eldorado High School games. During his senior season, this boiled over into a skirmish with the school’s assistant principal, Susan Stanojevic, who accused Janet Neal of physically accosting her after a game. A police report was filed and eventually Stanojevic filed a lawsuit against Neal for emotional distress. Neal denied the allegations, but settled the suit out of court in 2015.
Though sources say Janet Neal was fondly received by the other players at UNM, her ubiquity was said to be a point of distraction, if not contention. It also didn’t help matters, said a source, when Janet would regularly come back to the locker room to deliver boxes of new shoes for Cullen, which other players couldn’t get.
But the bigger issue was that of the father. One former member of the program remembered several instances where Craig Neal got into angry spats with his assistants because he didn’t think they were calling enough fouls for Cullen during scrimmages. “It was the pettiest shit in the world,” said the source. Though a freshman on a team with two veteran ball-handlers (Williams and Greenwood), Cullen Neal ended up averaging 20 minutes a game. Sophomore guard Cleveland Thomas, who many on the team thought had future star potential, and junior college transfer Arthur Edwards, would necessarily take the sacrifice in playing time. Both would end up transferring at the end of the season: Edwards to Alabama, and Thomas to Hartford, where he averaged 19 points per game last season.
After losses to Kansas and New Mexico State, Neal temporarily gave up the ghost on his run-and-gun dreams, returning to the Alford-era half court style of play. And on the backs of Bairstow, Kirk and Williams, the Lobos finished with a 27-6 record, a third Mountain West Conference tournament title, and a No. 17 ranking in the Associated Press poll. They were granted a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament where, sources say, a post-season hysteria took hold.
When the matchup against No. 10 seeded Stanford came across the TV screen, one source said, Neal shook with fury, exclaiming, “They fucked us.” The sense of doom carried forward as the team traveled to St. Louis for the Round of 64.
“They freaked out,” said another source in the program, describing a frenzied atmosphere and a sudden outbreak of infighting between coaches and players. “They made it feel like we had no chance to win, that we are going to play against an NBA team.” It harkened back, sources say, to the same kind of coaching crack up that preceded the previous year’s upset loss against Harvard in the NCAA Tournament. This time around, Stanford beat UNM 58-53, and the defeat quickly scrubbed the sheen off the Neal hire.
This year hurts more than last. No words. Failure.
— The LoboLair (@TheLoboLair) March 21, 2014
By cratering to the Cardinal, Neal had already failed in the main part of his mission: his most important charge was to keep the band together, and achieve a successful summit of the Sweet 16. If Neal could accomplish that, Lobo Nation could live with whatever came after.
While the business remained unfinished, what happened next was jaw-dropping, an object lesson in how unmeritorious the business of college athletics can be. For his failure, Noodles was rewarded with a two-year contract extension. And that was just the start.
A week after the Stanford loss, a CBSSports.com report claimed that Neal was a “legitimate target” for the South Florida coaching vacancy. The story dutifully, if not obsequiously, made the case that Neal was being under-compensated at New Mexico:
“But it should be noted that Neal only makes $750,000 and has not been offered a new contract despite winning 27 games and the Mountain West Conference tournament title this season, meaning USF could easily offer Neal more money than he’s currently earning.”
Neal played coy during a post-season press conference in April, insisting he was completely unaware of the USF buzz while, at the same time, suggesting that he ought to have been.
“I might be the only head coach in the history of the program who doesn’t have an agent. So, unless it comes through me, there are no other discussions about jobs or anything,” Neal said. “I want to be here. I have nowhere else to go.”
Weeks before, Krebs clearly stated to the Journal that he had no intentions of increasing Neal’s salary after his first season. But the portent of USF, whether real or imaginary, appeared to dramatically shift the ground. That September, Krebs gave Neal a new contract with a $200,000 annual pay increase. Though Krebs didn’t specifically cite a rival suitor — there were unconfirmed reports that Virginia Tech and Tulsa had some interest in Neal, as well — he made clear that the move was designed to ward off incursions.
“It became even more apparent to me over the off-season that Craig is well-respected nationally in the basketball community,” Krebs said. “I felt it was vital to ensure his place as head basketball coach at the University of New Mexico for years to come.”
It was always understood that Neal’s true gauntlet would come in Year Two. The great gamble with the inexperienced leader would occur after the Big Three — Bairstow, Kirk and Williams — made their exit. Could Noodles successfully coach and recruit as the top man on the Lobo totem?
The answer arrived quickly and it came with crushing clarity. One early sign that the Lobo ship was becoming unsteady emerged in the post-game press conferences. In Neal’s first season, the combination of competent veterans and consistent victories kept scrutiny in abeyance. But in the second season, when the going got tougher, Neal’s media sessions became roundelays of remonstration: Players wouldn’t listen, he insisted. Player’s acted entitled, he declared. Players would lose their privileges, he promised.
As the losses piled up, Neal fingered the unpaid, collegiate culprits. He denigrated Devon Williams, for asking out of a game with exhaustion. He attacked Arthur Edwards for moping on the bench. And he really turned the screws against Jordan Goodman, his hobbled and hyped newcomer. Neal hid behind the false conceit that he did not actually name names, but the charges were so specific and the roster so small, that it was never hard to decipher the defendant. Local media was always able to easily fill in the blanks.
The “player’s coach” relentlessly criticizing his own players was somewhat jarring to observers, and fans gradually pushed back. Eventually, Neal either realized the negative reaction, or he was counseled to change his tact, because he began sprinkling his remarks with phrases like, “I take full responsibility,” “it’s my job,” “it’s my fault,” and “I’ll get it straightened out.” But nothing ever changed, and there was always another jersey-wearing scapegoat to be summoned for slaughter.
If Neal didn’t have the horses, he had only himself to blame.
While Alford was known to almost entirely delegate the recruiting process to his staff, Neal earnestly took up the chase himself — like a renegade Don Draper pursuing the Philip Morris account. Neal’s MO was that, with the dint of his charm, and his vaunted NBA bona fides, he could attract the players that Alford’s household-name couldn’t attract. (After all, he was the one who discovered Tracy McGrady.) His efforts were undeniable, but Neal’s hit rate was miserable. He chased after the big boys, only to repeatedly come up empty-handed.
TheLobolair.com, which enthusiastically covered Neal’s recruiting, and with insider access, became the unwitting repository of the coach’s misadventures — documenting all the players the program was confident it would get, but ultimately did not. That included Zylan Cheatham, the Arizona high schooler who spurned the Lobos at the last minute for rival San Diego State; Mitch Lightfoot, another Arizonan who committed to UNM, but then backed out; a parade of mysterious foreign-born big men; a phalanx of elite Indiana players— all unrequited titillations, in the end. Overzealous on one hand, Neal could be downright neglectful on the other.
Such was the case of Goodman, a 6-9 former junior college All-American, who was expected to fill the gaping scoring hole in the paint created by the departures of Bairstow and Kirk. “I never talked to Craig Neal one time, ever,” Drew Kelly, Goodman’s head coach at Harcum (Junior) College, told me. “It was a little strange.” Kelly recalled that Lamont Smith, UNM’s associate head coach, paid one visit to the campus during the spring recruiting period, and met with Goodman for “a couple minutes” in Kelly’s office. (Multiple efforts to reach Goodman for this story were unsuccessful.)
Nevertheless, upon his signing, Neal hailed Goodman in the terms of a savior:
“We are very excited to welcome Jordan to our program. He is one of the highest-rated junior college players in the nation. Jordan is very talented and will help us make up some of the lost scoring from last year. He is a multi-dimensional player, and we will play him at a variety of positions on the floor. Jordan is a player who can come in and score for us while bringing a lot of athleticism and versatility to our program.”
Goodman had suffered a knee injury in junior college, and arrived on UNM’s campus while rehabbing from surgery. Neal suggested repeatedly throughout the season that UNM had not been consulted about the operation, and made his displeasure plainly evident. By that January, he was openly denigrating his player’s abilities.
“I mean, I think you guys have blown this thing up to where he is supposed to be this great, great player, and nobody has ever seen it,” Neal said during a post-game press conference, following a loss to UNLV. “So there is a lot of paper reps that are out there on people that haven’t come true, and I think that’s a little unfair to him.”
Goodman would transfer at season’s end.
It wasn’t just players who made unceremonious exits from the Lobo program: an even more glaring failure of Neal’s was in maintaining a cohesive and contented coaching staff. Following the 2014-15 season, three of Neal’s underlings left for other jobs: Smith became head coach at the University of San Diego; assistant Drew Adams took a similar position at Bradley University; and Brandon Mason left to become an assistant at New Mexico State.
With their departures, Neal’s entire coaching and support staff at UNM had effectively been gutted in the course of just two seasons. And notwithstanding Smith, much of the staff had left for lateral or lesser jobs. Basketball operations director Mike Iuzzolino departed after the first season, to return to Canisius; assistant Craig Snow likewise bid farewell to become head coach at New Mexico Highlands, a Division II school. And Neal declined to renew the contract of strength and conditioning coach Diego Baca, who Alford had hired in 2012.
While the former staffers are keeping mum about any beef with Neal, several team sources said that their departures owed more to clashes with the head coach, than efforts towards professional advancement. And however “affectionately known across the country” Neal is said to be, he seemed to struggle with trying to fill the vacancies.
Those challenges were evident in his efforts to find Smith’s replacement: After being snubbed by several other coaching candidates, Neal eventually made the hard sell to Miller, the former UNM assistant, who was then at UNLV. In a telephone interview, Miller confirmed for me that Neal had offered him a three-year contract worth $200,000 per season. Given the instability of the Rebels program at the time — head coach Dave Rice had almost been fired the year before — it seemed like an obvious move for Miller to make. The Lobos clearly assumed he was coming aboard: University records obtained by NMFishbowl.com showed that the school had begun processing Miller into its employee payment system. But in the end, Miller decided to stay at UNLV.
“We talked, but the timing wasn’t right,” said Miller, who would end up losing his job at the end of that season, when Rice was finally ousted. (Miller is now in his first season as an assistant at Texas Christian University, working under former Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon.) After Miller’s hiring fell through, Neal offered the associate head coach position to Nebraska assistant coach Chris Harriman, who Neal said he had tried to hire the previous year as a lower-level assistant. An Australian, Harriman had become a popular figure at Nebraska, in large part because of his son’s fight with leukemia, and the family’s local cancer awareness efforts.
At a press conferencing introducing Harriman as UNM’s associate head coach, the Journal’s Geoff Grammer trenchantly asked the new hire if he was worried about leaving a Big Ten program for a revolving door in the MWC. The question hit a nerve with Neal, whose face instantly scrunched into a sourpuss. After Harriman responded winsomely, Neal interjected with self-righteous indignation:
“My job here is to further the career of coaches in the profession. My job is not to keep coaches here. Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten two coaches head coaching jobs, but nobody wants to say anything about that. I’ve gotten assistant coaches better jobs. When Wyking [Jones], Ryan [Miller] and Chris Walker left [under Alford], nobody was writing anything or talking anything about that. My job is to help players advance, help them to become student-athletes, but it is also my job to help coaches further their profession.”
While it’s debatable how much Neal has helped his assistants advance, there would be no question that could push them. The evidence came, quite literally, during the second game of the regular season, when the Lobos faced New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Midway through the second half, TV cameras caught Neal forcibly shoving Harriman on the sideline, as the assistant coach tried to restrain his boss from going after an official.
At first, Neal blamed Harriman for even deigning to hold him back: “I’ve coached here for three years and won a lot of games. I think I know what I can do and what can’t do.” Neal also suggested that he had been caught up in the emotions of a freak neck injury to Devon Williams, who had been taken off the court in a stretcher moments before.
A couple of days later, however, Neal tried a second pass at a mea culpa, but in spectacularly unconvincing fashion. “I would like to apologize for shoving my assistant,” Neal snickered at the start of his weekly press conference. He then proceeded with the kind of mealy-mouthed, song-and-dance that would have made even Donald Trump plotz [emphasis added]:
“We didn’t think it was that big of a deal but my actions were kind of involved in that you’re dealing with a kid [Devon Williams] that’s really, really hurt, um, and it’s the heat of the battle and we had a lot of things going on that night, and it shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again. It was just an unfortunate thing that happened and we’ll go on from it. But the last thing I checked, Chris and I are pretty good. He lived with me for two months and I haven’t sent him an invoice for meals or stay, so I don’t think there’s a problem between us.”
In other words: according to Neal, you can freely accost your subordinate, so long as you’ve previously done something nice for him.
Two months before, Harriman’s wife announced on Facebook that she and the couple’s children would be returning to Nebraska, because of problems in Albuquerque with doctors, schools and “a few other reasons,” which were left unspecified. (Harriman did not respond to requests to comment about that incident, his status with the program, and his relationship with Neal.)
The 2015-16 UNM season would be a study in Neal’s regressive logic, much of it revolving around his handling of son Cullen’s role on the team. The family favoritism that had been felt within the program had, by now, fully leaked into public view. The seeds were planted in Cullen’s first year and cultivated in his second, when, after a season-ending ankle injury, he spent the rest of the season sitting next to his father on the game-day bench, as if he were the associate head coach. Craig Neal’s callowness to the optics of nepotism nearly guaranteed that his son would become a target of his own fan base. There were certainly ways to protect both his child and his program, but Neal seemed most intent to proving a point — that he knew better.
By Cullen’s redshirt sophomore season, Craig Neal seemed to be downright encouraging his son to ball hog and hot dog under the existentialist mantra: Let Cullen be Cullen. His argument was that to try and restrain any of his son’s youthful impulses would be to denude his game, entirely. It would be one thing if the coach permitted this kind of free-flowing philosophy for the entire team, but that wasn’t the case: Cullen Neal’s teammates were regularly sanctioned to the bench after small missteps, only to then watch from the pine as the coach’s son turned Bob King Court into his personal Temple of YOLO. One didn’t need NBA coaching experience to see the obvious problems with this double-standard — basic human intuition would do.
But the thought that Lobo fans and Albuquerque media would dare question his judgement was too much for Craig Neal. Following an exhibition game against CSU-Pueblo, in which the Lobos committed 20 turnovers (of which Cullen Neal had eight), the coach was queried about his team’s sloppiness on the court. Taking the question as an attack against his son — and, thereby, an attack on his coaching — Neal pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and delivered a rambling soliloquy. With all its inscrutable bluster, it was Peak Noodles:
“I said it the other day. I did my homework. I don’t try to be an electrician, don’t try to be an engineer. I don’t work up at Sandia. I don’t work at Los Alamos. I don’t try and be a radio host. I do know one thing: I know who can play point guard because I’ve played it at the highest level. Last time I checked, Magic Johnson is not living here, Gary Payton doesn’t live here, [Steve] Nash doesn’t live here. So I do know that the — I’m not an MMA expert; there’s things that I’m not an expert at, but I do know one thing: who can play (point guard); who can play it, and who’s gonna to play it. I’ve played it at the highest level and coached it at the highest level, so the turnovers do not bother me.”
The ego of the father would now certainly become the burden of the son.
Just as with the previous season, the Lobos once more lost their bearings during an ESPN-televised holiday tournament; this time, the scene of disaster was the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. On December 22, UNM lost its first game of the tournament, to Auburn, while committing 22 turnovers.
That same day, Cody Hopkins, the team’s director of basketball operations, was placed on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation into $64,000 of improper ATM withdrawals. A UNM audit would eventually claim that this was an isolated incident of embezzlement perpetrated by Hopkins, though charges have still not been brought, more than a year later. (Four UNM employees faced censure for lack of oversight in the matter, but Neal, Hopkins’ direct boss, was completely cleared.)
By the end of the Diamond Head Classic, UNM had lost three games in a row and Neal had taken to public evisceration and empty threats. “We’ve got a lot of agendas on our team and it will get straightened out,” Neal said after the third loss, against Washington State, according to the Journal.“Because, now, I’ve been nice to them. I’ve been trying to be a player’s coach. Be good. Now it’s my game and I’ll get it straightened out.”
But instead, things only got more twisted. A week after Hopkins was put on leave, Nikola Scekic, the freshman center from Serbia, who ESPN’s Andy Katz had previously compared to Luc Longley, abruptly announced he was departing the program.
When asked which of his players were showing themselves to be leaders, Neal responded with a bizarre no-confidence vote. “I don’t think we have one right now. We have a lot of guys who want to try and be leaders, that I would not follow,” he said on Dec. 28, 2015. “I’m going to have to lead them. Right now, I let them try to do it their way, and I was pretty happy with them, and now with the slippage we have had, I am going to have to lead them.”
This kind of rhetoric begged a rhetorical question: What the hell had he been doing up to that point?
Then, in February, came the lamentable denouement of the Cullen Neal saga, or at least the beginning of the end. During a press conference on Feb. 11, Craig Neal alleged that his son had been subject to death threats by Lobo fans, and was forced to delete his phone number and take down his Twitter account because of it. It was a shocking revelation, and yet Neal seemed completely unprepared to handle the fall-out — or to even anticipate that there would be follow-up questions.
A spokesman for UNM’s police department later told the Journal that Craig Neal had made no mention of death threats in conversations with law enforcement. And the coach, thereafter, rebuffed any media efforts to legitimize those claims. Rather than invoking sympathies for his son — who had legitimately been the past victim of despicable online attacks — or subduing his social media antagonists, Craig Neal’s half-baked allegation only made matters worse.
It was especially unhelpful to the cause that Neal elided the claim with a case for how it would now make his job more difficult. “The hardest thing I have to do, and people don’t understand this, but I have to recruit,” Neal said.
Following a blowout loss at Colorado State, on Feb. 23, Craig Neal took up a new rejoinder for those who might question his stewardship: “I cannot coach effort.” It was as if he had discovered the ultimate, irrefutable argument against anyone who would ever challenge a college basketball coach. Because he kept workshopping it.
“I am going to try to motivate them and get them to play as hard as they can,” he said, the next day, at a press conference in Albuquerque. “That’s all I can do. It’s up to them to go play that way…There are several coaches I know that are in this conference and around the country that [say], you know, you can’t coach that effort.”
At least he couldn’t. And so it came to pass, once more, that Neal’s Lobos were one-and-done in the MWC tournament, losing to Nevada after a first-round bye. Some brief dithering ensued about whether the team would play in a second-rate, postseason tournament at Santa Ana Star Casino (The Pit was booked with bull-riding commitments), but merciful heads prevailed. A few short days later, Cullen Neal became the 10th player to transfer from the Lobos on Craig Neal’s watch.
“I know where the program is, I know where we’re going,” Neal said on March 29, in his end-of-the-season press conference. “The biggest thing is I’m going to learn. I learned from this year.”
But Lobo fans had also absorbed a lesson from the Craig Neal era: 2016-17 season ticket sales plummeted to a 12-year low. A tiny crowd yawned its way through October’s Lobo Howl, in which Neal, for the first time, declined to indulge in any special stagecraft. There would be no Harley ride down the ramp; no center-court buzzcut for cancer; no jig in a Lobo Louie costume. He wouldn’t even talk to reporters afterwords.
Except for Cullen Neal, who transferred to the University of Mississippi — and is shooting better and turning the ball over less than at any time in his career — Craig Neal returned his entire team from the previous year, including two all-conference players in Elijah Brown and Tim Williams. The media picked UNM to finish second in the conference. On paper, a return to the NCAA Tournament seemed quite attainable.
But it was clear by the second regular season game of this season, that the familiar patterns under Neal would remain all too familiar.
“I know everybody is going to be saying this,” Neal said on his post-game radio show, after the Lobos’ Dec. 12 loss at New Mexico State, “but I’m not going to coach energy, and I’m not a motivational speaker. I can motivate and do all that, but at the end of the day they have to come out and play.”
By now, for even the most dedicated of Neal apologists, the infinite regression shtick had passed its expiration point. Neal himself seemed to sense that it was time to break the pattern he had established for three-plus years of blame-casting. His desperate solution was to bench four of his starters for the Dec. 20 game at Arizona, presumably the toughest opponent the team would face all season.
The result was a 31-point loss and a public fissure with Brown, the Lobos star, who would soon take to Twitter with a thinly-veiled declaration of misery:
I will never give another man the power to take away my passion for the game. I ain’t the one ✌🏽I got a lot of hoop left in me!!!! #STILL
— elijah brown (@_eb4_) December 26, 2016
Whatever message Neal had intended to send to his team, the takeaway was lost on the coach himself.
“I really don’t know what it was, but it’s my fault,” Neal said after Arizona game, before proceeding to call out his players for being selfish, self-pitying, and stuck in their own “bubble.”
“We got to look in the mirror and guys got to get out of self-preservation,” said the man with the million-dollar buyout clause. “But I take responsibility.”
So yes, it’s over — but for however many more months of unctuous preaching Neal can paper over his failures with.
It’s difficult, at the moment, to imagine that Neal has another head coaching job in his future; his record has been so abundantly clear, so obviously dismal. But there are more than a few people who thought that he shouldn’t have gotten a head coaching job in the first place. Maybe, like his mentor-friend Alford, Neal survives and advances; maybe his comeuppance is only short-lived. After all, in so many ways, major college sports exists as a closed system of negative selection hierarchies (hence, those pricey payoffs).
In any event, cry not for Craig Neal: whatever his future, in spite of the present, he remains quite capable of enjoying the pleasures that go along with being Noodles.
Consider two weekends ago, when Neal was in a particularly fine mood, following the Lobos’ 40-point victory against hapless Arkansas Pine Bluff. Actor Benicio del Toro, who was in Albuquerque filming a movie, had attended the game, which gave Neal an opportunity to boast about his budding friendship with the Hollywood star.
“He’s here shooting a movie, but that’s all — I can’t give any details,” Neal said in the post-game press conference, unfurling his trademark, shit-eating grin.
“There’s a funny story about how much money he was worth,” Neal continued, apropos of nothing. “And I thought he was like a normal actor, and I was not even close with what I even thought he was worth. He’s a really good guy, wholesome guy, who loves the state of New Mexico.”
Neal said they planned to go out later that evening. You know: just a couple of good, wholesome guys, hanging out, talking about how great New Mexico is, and how much money they have.
Correction: This story previously misstated the year the University of Iowa won the Big Ten tournament. It was 2006, not 2005.
(Featured image: NMFishbowl.com photo illustration/ photo by Greg Stelz)