Symbolic. That’s all it was.
The two-year contract extension that New Mexico men’s basketball coach Craig Neal received last week was nothing more than the University showing some good will.
It makes sense; UNM felt it had to give Neal something after rumors spread of South Florida’s targeting Neal as their next head coach. At his end-of-season press conference, Neal, who does not have an agent, said he had not spoken to any schools about moving on from UNM.
“The only thing that I’ve said over the years is ‘let’s don’t get discounted on the six years I spent here before,’” Neal said. “I wasn’t a new guy coming in. The only thing that I can say is, if I would have left, you wouldn’t have any of these guys here.”
But how do you justify the move if you’re the Lobos?
Well, that’s a pretty easy case to make after Neal won the most games as a rookie head coach in program history (27) and became the first rookie coach to win the Mountain West Tournament.
But those goals were expected with four returning starters from last season’s MW regular season and tourney champions.
The only shortcoming this season, beside losing out on the conference regular-season title, was that the Lobos were once again one-and-done in the NCAA tournament, losing to Stanford 58-53 in the second round.
Basketball Times recently published a list of the Top 30 “Up-and-coming coaches” that gave Neal the second spot. Ironically, Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins was first.
“My only concern since I got the job was to get them back in the tournament,” Neal said. “That was the only personal goal I had. I was able to do that. We weren’t able to advance.”
The argument against a Neal extension?
It was only his first season as a head coach on any level. Yes, Neal did have a huge part in creating this past year’s team, but everybody already knew this was going to be another good season for Lobo basketball.
Now it’s time to see how Neal fairs in his second season as head coach. I have no questions about his recruiting ability since he has had a hand in selecting every recruit that has come to UNM during his time here.
Neal’s in-game coaching was fine for the most part, aside from a few hiccups here and there, but that’s to be expected for any rookie head coach. I’m positive that Neal will only learn from his mistakes this season and become a better in-game tactician with more games under his belt.
“I thought I was ready,” Neal said. “We went through tough times adjusting everybody, getting everybody adjusted. It’s different when you have to call timeouts and you have to change starting lineups and make decisions for your team and how you’re planning for your team and how you’re going to travel and what you’re going to do.”
The two-year extension does not mean much because if UNM does keep on winning and Neal gets the team to its first-ever Sweet 16 appearance, then surely there will be a heftier contract on deck for the first-time head coach.
That’s my biggest problem with it. It’s not that Neal didn’t deserve it, but that those two added years will mean nothing in the end.
Agent Neal is probably smart enough to figure out that a sustained amount of success doesn’t come cheap.