PIT-eeeno? Lobo for Life II? Coop? Seems Pretty Wild, but So Are Coaching Searches

By Mark Smith
Enchantment Sports
Editor in Chief

Pack the PIT-ino!

Imagine the promotional value of that one?

Not to mention the instant recognition and immediate landslide of season ticket sales?

Or what about “Coop! Coop!” rocking the 18,000, err, 13,000 – make that 7,500 or whatever it might be in the Pit?

That could work for really old-school Lobo fans — those still remaining — with fond memories of the “Glory Days” of University of New Mexico men’s basketball.

Or how about the second coming of Steve Alford — a guy fans and media, alike, treated like the second coming?

They’re among the many names that folks tossed my way in the past 24 hours as their choices as the next University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach.

I’ve long learned that you never say never.

Not too many folks had Paul Weir as their No. 1 choice in 2017. But he was in, and four years later is out as the Lobos’ head coach.

But realistically?

Sure, Rick Pitino is back in the college game (Iona). And he would certainly have to take a long look at UNM, if given the shot.

But it’s hard to see Pitino getting past No. 1 on Eddie Nuñez’s criteria checklist (see this link).

Lobo great and NBA standout Michael Cooper, whose name comes up every time the job opens up, is about as realistic as the Pit chairbacks being filled by Roblox-playing tweens wearing “I Love Our Governor” facemasks and “Franny’s the Best” T-shirts.

And Alford?

How about the irony of me tossing out his name in reference to coming to UNM — and not looking to leave for Missouri or UCLA?

Then again, the Albuquerque Journal did label him “Lobo for Life” nearly a decade ago.

Hey, maybe it has a crystal ball.

Steve “Lobo for Life” Alford.

But I’m not betting on that. There is that issue with UNM’s cash-strapped athletic budget and Alford’s longer-than-life contract at Nevada.

But if nothing else, he can use the name-drop for another extension — then call a news conference to attack me and promise a different Wolf Pack fans base he’ll never leave them.

Heck, maybe our local sports TV media can even attend and acknowledge they take a man at his word, with no questions asked.

The bottom line? Names of possible candidates for the Lobo gig will be flying off fans’ tongues this week like toilet paper off the shelves at Costco last March.

Some names will be intriguing, some will be ludicrous and some, possibly, could even be correct.

Whatever the case, it’s an exciting time for the program, the school, the fans, the media and a boatload of coaching hopefuls.

“It’s a tough day, but it’s also a special day,” UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said during a video telecast on Saturday morning, about 15 hours after announcing Weir was finished after the season.

Paul Weir’s Lobos are 6-14 and 2-14 in the Mountain West, which doesn’t include two forfeits. The fourth-year coach agreed to a buyout on Friday and will not return next season.

“We look for the future of our program, and also understand what opportunities exist for us and what we see this program can and should be about.”

Names have been bantered most of the season, and my phone blew up when Enchantment Sports broke the story of Weir’s buyout on Friday night, just prior to UNM’s news release.

“Who’s replacing him?” was the most commonly asked question, likes it’s already a done deal.

“Who knows?” was my answer.

And nobody should know, not even Nuñez — who I truly believe is going to do a thorough job and land a man perfect for the Pit, given the parameters he’s saddled with.

Much has changed during the past four decades since the first time I covered a Lobo coaching search. And as brutal as they were during my era in mainstream media, they have gotten downright insane since the advent of social media.

If a coach wants his name out there, he simply has to call some fansite boob who will instantly pucker up and post away.

Enchantment Sports has no issue with listing possible candidates, as we did on Friday night, but we’re not just going to throw out every name because GooberLovesLobos put it on Twit-iot Ville or because a friend in the biz needs a favor.

One of the things fans need to realize about candidate names, is that the most serious contenders aren’t usually the ones being bantered publicly for various reasons, like:

  1. Class: Nobody wanted to appear they were champing at the bit for the job before it officially opened, and even now don’t want to make Weir feel even worse about the situation.
  2. Desperation: Coaches who are out of the business – or about to be booted – want a school to come to them first, not vice versa.
  3. Current job: A coach wanting to make the move from another school certainly doesn’t want his to know he’s ready to leave (see Steve Alford Missouri; see Steve Alford UCLA).

“People throw out their names because they want to help themselves personally,” Nuñez said when I asked him about that in the video conference. “There are people who I can assure you will have their name out that I’m not interested in.

Eddie Nuñez

“Others might be still competing. I’m not going to comment on who has called me, because my phone has been blowing up. If you don’t hear from me that (a certain coach) is a candidate, don’t believe it. I am going to speak to a lot of individuals during this process. But speaking to them doesn’t mean I’m interviewing them.”

Thus, the leaders in the clubhouse are probably not the ones calling sports media or websites to get their name in public.

Unless they’ve lost their Noodle.

On second thought, that did work once.

Then Craig Neal had to coach. I digress.

While Nuñez said he is primarily interested in a guy with head coaching experience, he added, “I’m never going to say ‘I’ll never hire an assistant coach.’ … I’m not going to put myself in a corner.”

And while the names of some of the top-notch candidates have likely yet to surface, something that makes this particular search even more intriguing is the handful of guys with solid head coaching resumes who are currently out of the business and would seem to be a great fit at New Mexico.

Nuñez has had to deal with a monumental mess since being hired in the summer of 2017, including the department’s financial disaster, former AD Paul Krebs’ Scotlandgate scandal, the firing of football coach Bob Davie, the shooting deaths of Lobo baseball player Jackson Weller and incoming basketball player JB White and this Lobo basketball season — the school’s worst in modern history, outside of Lobogate.

Oh yeah, and that minor detail of the COVID-19 pandemic and a governor who wouldn’t allow his programs to play or practice in the entire state (just please don’t mention that on 101.7 sports talk radio shows).

But in December of 2019, I went on the record saying Nuñez made a great hire in Lobo football coach Danny Gonzales. I believe that even more today.

And I’m confident Nuñez is going to come up with a great name again.

If not, I’m sure fans will have a lot of names for him.

Mark Smith mug

Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio and has been honored nationally for investigative reporting. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.

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