Stevens: Craig 'Noodles' Neal Is The Popular Choice & The Right Choice

April 3, 2013

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

It was a slam dunk, a no brainer, a home run - and, yes, a tear-jerker.

It was Lobos looking around to find the best person and the best coach to run their gem of a basketball program and finding there was really no need for a search.

Craig Neal had been there for six years waiting in the wings and apparently growing a passion for this moment that brought the coach nicknamed "Noodles" to tears several times Wednesday in a news conference in The Pit introducing New Mexico's 20th men's basketball coach.

Paul Krebs, UNM's Vice President of Athletics, said "Noodles" was the right choice for a number of reasons and program stability and consistency were considerations. But Krebs also stressed that Neal wasn't picked simply because he had been sitting next to Steve Alford in The Pit for six seasons and was the popular choice among players, boosters and fans.

"Continuity for continuity sake really didn't matter for me," said Krebs. "Continuity with the right leader is what mattered."

Krebs' vision for Lobo men's basketball goes beyond the eligibility of a Tony Snell or an Alex Kirk and stretches into a future that this program has reached for, but has yet to grasp. There is no question that Alford's Lobos had reached a level of success unprecedented in the proud history of this program. Alford did good. Alford did great.

That coach is gone. Long win the new coach.

"Steve set the bar really high and I'm going to try and jump over it," said Neal.

There is no question that there are additional steps to take, additional levels to jump to, including the all-important success in NCAA postseason.

For Neal, that reaching and that burden of responsibility fall on his capable shoulders. He welcomes the challenge.

"I'm overwhelmed. I'm extremely humbled by the support," said Neal. "It's been amazing. It's an amazing place. I'm looking forward to many years to come.

"We have a lot of unfinished business. We have a lot of goals and a lot of things we want to do. I'm so happy to be the coach of the New Mexico Lobos."

The resume of Neal as a Lobo and in his prior journeys across hard courts as a collegiate player and as a pro is impressive. The man knows his Xs and Os. He can teach the game. He can recruit. Now, he has to do it for the first time ever as a head coach.

For the first time ever, the Lobo Pit buck stops with Noodles.

There also is the passion angle, which matters. The sincerity of the passion from Lobo fans is something that should be shared and embraced by the head coach.

In a way, the door to The Pit and to the heart of the Lobo community was opened even wider by Alford when he jumped the Lobo ship and bailed for UCLA. Alford left. Noodles stayed. Alford lost to Harvard. Alford never reached the Sweet 16. It was an exit that favored Alford's successor.

Alford is now embracing and wooing Los Angeles like its Paradise Lost or Indiana West, and - well, Noodles is here eating red and green chili, pulling on red jackets, and growing a UNM program. Noodles is a Lobo.

"I'm going to put my own identity on it," said Neal of the program he now leads.

The identity and the brand that Alford left is a strong one. He won Mountain West titles and turned New Mexico into a road-tough team that could win in gyms not named The Pit. Neal needs to do the same thing - with Xs and Os, with defense, with recruiting, with a blue-collar work ethic, with Pit-fueled emotion.

On Wednesday, Neal wiped away tears and opened a window into why he could become one of the more loved Lobo coaches ever. He is more of a regular guy than Alford and probably more of a New Mexico guy than Alford.

But can he win at Alford's level. That's what really fuels the passion and the support of The Pit and its fans.

"I think my biggest attribute is my passion," said Neal referring to both Lobo basketball and the game.

On Wednesday, Neal carried some of that passion on his sleeve. It was the sleeve on a Lobo-red jacket that he pulled on prior to stepping in front of the microphone and addressing the news media and 100-plus Lobo supporters.

It was a great moment for Lobo basketball as an outstanding coach and a deserving man was handed his chance to sit in The Pit's hot seat and take his laps in the fish bowl that surrounds this special program.

It was a sweet choice, a sweet day.

Like in 16?