UNM pays head coach over $1 million to buy out contract
March Madness came to an end in the most dramatic way possible for a program that didn’t make it to the tourney.
On Friday night The LoboLair — an online aggregate of UNM athletics news — tweeted the breaking news of Craig Neal being relieved of his duties as the UNM men’s basketball head coach. A press release sent by Assistant Athletic Director of Communications Frank Mercogliano about 30 minutes later confirmed Neal’s departure.
This may or may not have come as a surprise to those who have been following the program.
On March 10, Athletics Director Paul Krebs provided a statement saying that “to end speculation,” he was announcing that Neal would be returning next season. He said the team’s performance this year had been affected because of injuries to several key players, and that he still had high expectations for the program with Neal at the helm.
What UNM acting President Chaouki Abdallah said on Friday night showed that the University had changed its mind.
“The decision made late tonight comes after lengthy consideration in light of recent developments that cannot be ignored.” Abdallah’s statement read. “We understand the frustration being voiced by Lobo fans and hope they will see us through this time of transition and continue to support UNM athletics.”
The discontent by some fans was not subtle. Things went as far as someone starting a GoFundMe account to raise the $1 million needed to buy out Neal’s contract. As of Friday night, the account had raised $625.
According to the creator of the fund, who used the name “Louie Lobo,” this was mostly to prove a point and give fans a voice. The money raised would be donated to the UNM Cancer Center.
Neal became head coach four years ago after former head coach Steve Alford left to UCLA. Neal had already been with the Lobos for six years as associate head coach.
Neal officially closes his career at UNM with a 76-52 overall record, his win total good for ninth in school history. He had a .594 winning percentage, eighth in school history.
During his first year as head coach, Neal got the Lobos to finish 27-7, culminating in a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
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The following three years, however, were less than ideal, involving injuries and drama, including to Neal’s son that made headlines during this period. The Lobos finished those three seasons with a 49-45 overall record, including an even 27-27 in the Mountain West conference.
Although fans’ dissatisfaction with the program seemed to be a buildup from unsuccessful seasons, the frustration increased after .
Neal’s contract had been planned to run all the way to the 2019-20 season. To let Neal go, the contract required UNM to pay a $1 million buyout as well as the rest of that contract year’s base salary of $300,000.
Krebs, who at the time of the decision was in Arizona for the NCAA’s Final Four round, said the search for the program’s next head coach will begin immediately.
Isabel Gonzalez is a sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. She mainly covers men’s soccer and basketball. She can be reached at sports @dailylobo.com or on Twitter @cisabelg.