Will Nuñez Scale a Familiar Mountain in Lobo Coach Search?

By Mark Smith
Enchantment Sports
Editor in Chief

So, you want to play the name game?

Then here are a few to keep in mind when it comes to the University of New Mexico men’s basketball coaching search:

Craig Smith, Niko Medved, Brian Dutcher, Jeff Linder, Justin Hutson, Joe Scott and Steve Alford.


Now before anyone rushes to Twit-iot Ville to tout any of the above as next Lobo coach — or to announce that I have officially lost my mind (which might not be that off base these days) — that’s not a list of guys likely battling to be the Pit’s keepers of the keys.

Although many a Lobo fan is clutching a cherry-red rabbit’s foot about the latter on the list.

But the point of keeping those names in mind, is that UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez just might be.

Not as candidates. But as examples.

And for good reason.

Those Mountain West men’s hoop head coaches were all in the league before snatching their current positions. And six are having nice success, with a trio being outstanding.

Which could give Nuñez an extra reason to take a close look at guys like Tim Miles, Jim Boylen, Larry Shyatt, Jim Christian and Joe Dooley — all with Mountain West experience and all but Dooley out of coaching.

Here’s how the current league coaches with previous MW experience stack up:

Utah State went from a league doormat prior to Smith’s arrival to elite during his three years. The Aggies are 70-22 overall and 40-13 in conference that span, and have won the league tournament each of his first two seasons. Smith has won or shared conference coach of the year honors each of his first two years.

Craig Smith (USUstats.com)

Smith was an assistant at CSU under former head coach Tim Miles, and has been on Miles’ staff at four schools. His first head coaching job was at South Dakota. After three standout seasons there, he took over at USU.

San Diego State has been among the nation’s elite the past two seasons under Dutcher, who was a longtime assistant under Steve Fisher before the latter retired in 2017. The Aztecs are 87-30, 47-18 in Dutcher’s four seasons. They would have had a top-2 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament had there been one, and Dutcher shared MW coach of the year honors with Smith.

Brian Dutcher (San Diego Union-Tribune)

Colorado State (16-4, 13-3) is on the cusp of making the NCAA Tournament in this season, Medved’s third as Rams head coach. He was head coach for a combined five years at Furman and Drake and was also an assistant at CSU (2007-2013) under Miles. Medved is a strong candidate for MW coach of the year.

Wyoming is rebuilding in its first year under Linder (12-9, 6-8), who took over a program that went a dismal 17-48, 6-30 the past two seasons under Allen Edwards. Linder had a nice run as head coach at Northern Colorado the past four years and was an assistant at Boise State from 2010-16.

Nevada became a MW power and exploded into the national limelight under Eric Musselman (2015-19) before he left for Arkansas. While Alford hasn’t restored the Wolf Pack to Musselman’s level, he had to reload a roster depleted by graduation and has kept Nevada very competitive in his two seasons (33-19, 21-11).

Nevada coach Steve Alford led New Mexico to four NCAA Tournaments (Bizjournal.com) .

Alford came to Nevada after being fired after six seasons at UCLA. Before that, he led New Mexico to one of the best stretches in MW history with a 68-26 league record and four NCAA Tournaments and two NITs in his six years.

Fresno State (21-29, 15-21) has been mediocre under Hutson the past two seasons, but was 23-9, 13-5 two years ago in his debut campaign. He was previously an assistant at SDSU and UNLV.

Air Force is one of the toughest places in the nation to build a winning program, but Scott is back to try and do just that. Again.

Joe Scott is trying to resurrect Air Force for a second time (David Bitton/The Gazette).

Just like his during his first stint at the Academy (2000-2004), Scott inherited a dismal situation during this, his first season back (4-16, 2-14). But he took over one of the nation’s biggest doormats in his initial go-around, and turned the Falcons into a nationally-ranked NCAA Tournament team in 2004.

Shocking Mountain Terrain

The key to this recent trend of schools turning to familiar faces, is that the MW is not a typical mid-major conference and guys coming from the outside can suffer serious shell-shock.

Just ask recently ousted Lobo coach Paul Weir (6-14, 2-14 in MW and two forfeits), San Jose State’s Jean Prioleau (5-15, 3-13) or UNLV’s T.J. Otzelberger (11-12, 8-8), the latter whose talent-rich roster was supposed to contend for the crown.

They are three of only four MW head coaches who were not on the league sidelines prior to their most recent hirings.

Knowledge appears king of the Mountain.

“You have to understand what it is to play at altitude, you have to understand how difficult the travel is in this league,” SDSU’s Dutcher told the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this season. “I mean, most of these programs aren’t chartering (planes) to places. We’re jumping on a commercial flight, then bussing two hours to play.”

The only coach having success this year without having coached in it before is Boise State’s Leon Rice. He was already running the Broncos when they entered the league 10 years ago from the Western Athletic Conference.

The Mountain West started in 1999-2000 with its eight original members (UNM, Utah, BYU, Air Force, SDSU, UNLV, Wyoming, CSU) breaking away from the WAC. It has long been underrated nationally, but has always had solid programs, big-time venues, brutal road trips and major differences between cities.

“I like to call it the ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ all shoved together,” says Mark Zeigler, veteran college basketball writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“There are some major cities and some places in the middle of nowhere. There’s something to be said about familiarity. You have to understand the altitude adjustments, the climate, the travel and the differences in the type of player you can recruit.

Mark Zeigler

“Las Vegas, San Diego, Albuquerque, they’re very different from Logan, Utah, or Laramie.

“In this league, it’s probably become a prerequisite that all coaches have some serious knowledge about it.”

Sure, there have been MW coaching flops who were hired after being assistants in the league. UNM’s Craig Neal and Wyoming’s Allen Edwards are prime examples. Interestingly, both were promoted from a staff they were already on before bombing out.

Neal took over for Alford at New Mexico and Edwards for Shyatt at Wyoming.

But when you see the success of the current coaches in the league and their previous MW experience, it brings to mind Boylen, Miles, Shyatt, Christian and Dooley (see this link for a look at the five).

Zeigler said he wouldn’t be surprised if the previous MW factor is also in the mind of Nuñez.

“Given the parameters around the job that Eddie has said; probably not an assistant but a proven head coach, probably about the same pay, someone who can develop players and coaches on and off the court, then it’s interesting to add one more: ‘How much do I value familiarity with the conference? “Recent history suggests that’s important,” Zeigler said.

“If he buys into that theory, it really limits it. And if that’s all the case, then, basically, you’ve just described Tim Miles.
“But then the question becomes; ‘Would he come for 800,000?'”

“If you’re going outside the conference, you better be right. They (the Lobos) just went outside, and that certainly didn’t work out.”

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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