McKay out as New Mexico coach at season's end

Updated: February 22, 2007, 9:03 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It came down to when, rather than if, Ritchie McKay would be fired at New Mexico.

Athletic Director Paul Krebs decided sooner was better, announcing Tuesday that McKay's contract will be terminated at the end of the season.

The decision was first reported by ESPN.com's Andy Katz.

"The intention all along was to make a decision at the end of the year, but there's a point when you realize a decision needs to be made sooner rather than later," Krebs said at a news conference. "It allows us to begin to move forward to find the next coach."

McKay -- who has three years remaining on his contract, worth $175,000 annually -- and his assistants will finish out the season. The Lobos (15-13, 4-9 Mountain West) have three regular-season games remaining, starting Saturday at Utah, followed by the Mountain West tournament.

"Please don't be sad for me. It's just the close of a chapter," a briefly emotional McKay said. "I don't have any animosity toward Paul or the administration. If it's best they make a change, I'm going to support it and continue to root for the Lobos."

McKay has a record of 82-65 in five seasons at New Mexico, including a dismal 8-41 mark on the road. He is 165-154 in an 11-year career that included earlier stops at Portland State, Colorado State and Oregon State.

Krebs said he and McKay had been discussing the move -- and a buyout package worth about $500,000 -- for several weeks. That's part of the price for the latest effort to get the program back to where it once was -- seven NCAA Tournament bids from 1991-99.

Declining attendance at home games, the defection of numerous players, the string of road losses and a growing crescendo of criticism from the fans all weighed into the decision to fire McKay, Krebs said.

"It was going to be very difficult for coach McKay and his staff to continue to lead this program," Krebs said. "The constant speculation, the scrutiny from our fans. It got to a point where I thought the coaches could no longer be effective."

Krebs said he and McKay had been discussing the move for several weeks.

"He was intimately involved in the timing of this decision," Krebs said.

New Mexico's 81-74 overtime loss to visiting San Diego State on Tuesday was the Lobos' fourth conference homecourt loss this season -- the first time that's happened since the 1980-81 season.

New Mexico opened the season with five straight wins, but back-to-back lopsided losses at UTEP and New Mexico State in December started a season-long slump. McKay had trouble getting his star player, guard J.R. Giddens, to play within his system.

Giddens, whom McKay had called an NBA "lottery pick" at the start of the season, was suspended indefinitely by McKay last week.

Still, senior center Aaron Johnson and guard Ryan Kersten rallied behind their now lame-duck coach.

"You're losing a great man, not just a coach," said Johnson, who left Penn State after his junior season to join the Lobos. "He's brought us together and made us better men."

Kersten, a junior from Australia, said he planned to return next season but lamented McKay's departure.

"He's the type of coach I'd want to play for the rest of my career," Kersten said.

McKay led the Lobos to the NCAA Tournament two years ago, earning a contract extension through 2010. That team was led by Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger, who had transferred to New Mexico from Bradley.

But over his five years in Albuquerque, McKay failed to reach the bar that Krebs and Lobo fans have set for the highest-profile sports program in the state.

Those expectations, Krebs said, include finishing in the top three in the Mountain West Conference on a consistent basis, going undefeated at home and .500 on the road and selling out The Pit.

"The goal should be to get into the Top 25," Krebs said. "We want to make the NCAA Tournament. High expectations are a good thing."

McKay's hiring by then-athletics director Rudy Davalos in 2002 after the firing of Fran Fraschilla caught most Lobo fans by surprise. McKay, who arrived in Albuquerque with a record of 83-89, never was able to win their support.

"This is a high pressure job, a great job," said McKay, whose father, Joe McKay, played for the Lobos in the early 1960s. "I'm hopeful that they can get it to the Top 25 and be pleasing in the sights of the people that passionately support the university."

If nothing else, said McKay, his hiring may take some pressure off his players in what's left of the season.

"They don't have to play to save my job," he said.

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz was used in this report.