- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Say what you want about Steve Alford -- a license that has expanded greatly since he was hired at UCLA -- his tenure at New Mexico was marked by quiet competence. San Diego State posted a 31-win season and now-departed BYU foisted The Jimmer upon an unsuspecting world and Vegas loaded up on NBA talent, and throughout it all, even as the Lobos were rarely picked to win their league, Alford recruited well, landed top transfers and built a never-flashy, always-productive outfit with a brutal home court to boot.
When Alford left this offseason, New Mexico could have felt insulted. The coach was reportedly in talks to sign another contract before he heard the swan song of Westwood, and besides, New Mexico had been better than UCLA recently and been to the tournament more consistently. You could have understood if school brass decided to overcompensate, to open up a nationwide coaching search and splash the cash on a fancy name hire to show it wasn't a feeder program but a destination in its own right. Many schools would have wanted to make a statement.
In the end, UNM did say something -- just not what we expected.
When New Mexico hired Craig Neal, a longtime assistant and Alford's right-hand man (and best friend), it quashed any notion of an existential crisis. It signaled that it was perfectly pleased with the trajectory of the program and the work of the man many credit for Alford's ability to route talent through Albuquerque.
It also, no doubt, had an eye on the coming season.
Had Neal not been hired, there may have been some measure of personnel loss. Without Neal taking over, forward Alex Kirk (who was most vocal about the possibility of leaving in the days after Alford's departure) could have left; Mountain West POY Kendall Williams could have followed Tony Snell to the NBA draft. Instead, Snell will be the only truly difficult loss for the Lobos to overcome. Guard Demetrius Walker is leaving the team, Jamal Fenton and Chad Adams graduated and Alford's sons are no longer in town, but the rest of the Lobos' best -- Williams, Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood -- are all back. (It is interesting to imagine Snell, who wasn't a senior, returning. This team felt older than it actually was.) That's a balanced defensive group that might even be better on the offensive end, and might also get minutes from Neal's son, Cullen, who tore up the Albuquerque high school scene and changed his commitment from Saint Mary's to play for his father after Neal was given the top job.
The long-term trajectory is more difficult to plot. Still, it is hard to imagine much changing. Alford may work to keep more Los Angeles talent home, which is an area New Mexico has exploited well, and you can bet Alford won't be so keen to let so much signed-and-transferred talent end up in the ranks of the MWC. (Hello, Drew Gordon.) But there's enough talent to go around, and the past five years have shown UNM doesn't have to land top classes to churn out a consistently successful basketball product. It's hard to guess why that would change in another five.
The $64,000 phrase here is continuity, which is always overstated. But so is the perennial need to make a "buzzy" hire, to win the news conference, to make some play at outsized status when you're left behind for the big boys.
Instead, UNM didn't panic. It kept the insecurity at bay. The succession plan was formed in a day, and thanks to that entirely level-headed move, Lobos hoops won't be going anywhere anytime soon.