New Mexico made a big splash and national news six years ago when it hired former Indiana star Steve Alford from Iowa. They didn't know it at the time, but they also hired Alford's successor with the move.
When Alford left the Lobos a week ago to take over at UCLA, school leaders decided keeping much of what Alford built at The Pit intact was best for the program this time around instead of trying to lure another rising star to Albuquerque.
They hired Craig Neal, Alford's associate head coach for the past six seasons, to try to build on the most successful era in the program's history. Neal, who earned the nickname 'Noodles' during his high school career in Indiana because of his skinny frame, had spent the previous nine years working for Alford at Iowa and New Mexico. He has been a part of 155 wins and a handful of Mountain West Conference championships at New Mexico.
It's fair to say Neal probably didn't need to sell anyone on his ability to do the job, but it's also fair to wonder how much pressure New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs and president Robert Frank were under to hire Neal, a popular figure among players and donors.
"Continuity is really import," Krebs said during the press conference introducing Neal. “And next year is really important, the following year and the year after that and the year after that are equally important. So continuity for continuity's sake really didn't matter to me. Continuity with the right leader is what mattered.”
In the days since Alford left for UCLA, several New Mexico players said they would seriously consider transferring if Neal wasn't hired. Forward Alex Kirk said he would graduate early and follow Alford to UCLA.
Kendall Williams, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, said he plans to return next season but is uncertain is all his teammates will do the same. Tony Snell, a 6-foot-7 swingman, has announced he will enter the NBA draft. Hugh Greenwood is reportedly considering returning to his native-Australia to play.
Hiring Neal might have been the New Mexico's best shot at keeping all those players in a Lobos uniform next season and trying to get past the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament.