Criticism of Cullen Neal has crossed the line, New Mexico coach Craig Neal said Thursday afternoon, even elevating to threats.
The Lobo sophomore point guard, also the most polarizing player on this year’s squad, has already changed his phone number twice and removed his social media accounts from Facebook and Twitter, Craig Neal said, as criticism against his son has increased.
“Put yourself in his shoes. Walk in his shoes for one day,” Craig Neal said. “It's not fair that you get threats and you get death threats, and it's not right. So does it affect him? I think that kind of answers your question.”
Paul Krebs, vice president for athletics at UNM, issued a statement later Thursday evening saying the Athletic Department is aware an incident where an athlete received threats and is examining if they are credible. The Krebs statement did not refer to a athlete by name.
"The University of New Mexico has a variety of resources available to students to support them in difficult times," Krebs said in the statement. "The safety of our student-athletes is paramount and is taken very seriously.”
It has started affecting Cullen Neal’s play as well. Craig Neal referred to him as “wound up” while trying to ensure he does not make a mistake. Much of the criticism lobbed against Cullen Neal isn’t fair, the coach said.
Cullen Neal played a part in Saturday night’s late-game inbounds turnover against San Diego State that, Mountain West officials stated later, was an incorrect call by the referees. Then Tuesday he proved a nonfactor in a loss at Utah State.
Local talk radio and social media erupted over the past week against New Mexico’s starting point guard, much of it stemming from the father-son dynamic, Cullen’s arrogance, his role on the team, even his high school playing days at Eldorado High School.
“I don't know where he is, his state of mind,” Craig Neal said. “I think he's so wound up not to play bad or not to make a mistake that it affects him. It's just one of those things that's unfortunate. We're trying to help him.”
Those who complain about Cullen Neal miss several key aspects, Craig Neal said.
He called Cullen Neal a great ambassador to the program and the state and pointed to his near 4.0 grade-point average. Earlier Thursday, before Craig Neal discussed the situation, the team announced Cullen Neal and Tim Williams earned CoSIDA Academic All-District 7 recognition.
“What's missed out on the whole thing if you've got a kid who's a pleaser and you've got a kid who cares about what everybody says,” Craig Neal said.
It doesn’t help out with recruiting, either, Craig Neal said. The harshness directed toward a player, especially when it happens toward the coach’s own son, makes it harder to sell the program to athletes and their families, he said.
"Families of my players now and families of the people that I recruit, it's not like they don't see it," Craig Neal said. "We try to do the best we can and that's all we can do."
The coach had no words for his son’s naysayers, saying if he worried about that then he wouldn’t be able to handle the job. He did reject the notion of moving Cullen out of the starting lineup, adding he is the team’s best point guard and the change would not help Cullen’s confidence.
Craig Neal does hope a breakout game for Cullen Neal, possibly this Saturday against San Jose State, will help moving forward.
“He's growing up. He's maturing. I think he's playing at a high level running out offense, doing what we want him to do,” Craig Neal said. “It's just the other stuff is unfortunate.”
J.R. Oppenheim is the assistant sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s basketball and women’s soccer. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JROppenheim.