Year 1 to Year 2: A chat with New Mexico coach Craig Neal
In this short series, SI.com has spoken with several coaches entering Year 2 at their current jobs about what they learned in the first year and what they’re looking for next season. Next up: New Mexico's Craig Neal.
Craig Neal's first year at New Mexico wasn't exactly his first year at New Mexico – he took over when Steve Alford departed for UCLA after having sat beside Alford as an assistant with the Lobos since 2007. But it was Neal's first-ever head coaching appointment, even if a 27-7 season and Mountain West tournament title suggested he was a quick learner. Now Neal will have to replace stars like forward Cameron Bairstow, center Alex Kirk and guard Kendall Williams in Year 2. He talked about the change in moving over one seat on the bench and how he'll find the leaders on a roster with substantial turnover at the top.
SI: Your Year 2 at New Mexico is a little different, because you were there for years. When you move over that one seat, what else did you learn that you apply moving forward?
CN: You learn a little bit more about your team, about your staff. You learn a little bit more about running your own program. You go through it the first time and you think you've been around long enough that you know all the pitfalls. But until you really go through it you don't really experience it. I learned a lot this year. I knew a lot going into it because I've been here for so long, and Steve did a good job of teaching me and I watched him run the program how it should be run. I put a couple tweaks in, but not a lot. We kind of did it together when we first got here. My biggest thing going into my second year is, I've got to replace a really good team. That's my biggest thing right now. Now I've got to find a group of guys that's very similar to the guys that just left. That's my biggest challenge -- and keeping our program in the top 25 and going in the right direction.
SI: At what point does it hit you that it's different when you're running things?
CN: The first time I came down the ramp. The first time you come down the ramp, and you're at a special place, I think you find out you have 15,000 assistant coaches that you don't really notice when you're an assistant. But I think the first time you come down there, the first time you realize you're making all the major decisions and you're the captain of the ship, that's the biggest thing. It doesn't really hit you until the first time it counts. During the summer when I got the job and I was out recruiting, people acknowledge it and they realize you're the head coach. Then the players come in, and you have an adjustment period where you're not the uncle, you're the Dad, and you start adjusting. I was involved in most of the process of the program, but it doesn't really hit you until you start doing things and it's tossed up real.
SI: In what ways did having the familiarity with New Mexico help, and in what ways wouldn't it have mattered if you were there before you took over?
CN: It wouldn't have mattered how long because of the pressure that's here, or the passion, the expectations of our program. When we first took it over, they were last place in the conference. Now we've won seven championships in eight years. I think that was one of our goals, but I never thought we would do that. Being here a long time helped me deal with that. But you know the pressure is there and the expectations are there because they love it so much. Now, if I was a new guy, I wouldn't have been as familiar as I am with the city, and boosters, and the fans, and the administration. My AD did a heck of a job helping me with sliding over a seat, and my staff helped me a lot.
SI: Are there things you implemented in Year 1 that you know you have to tweak some more in Year 2?
CN: We got to go out and play some teams in the out-of-conference schedule that will help us. I think we have to continue to try to get better. We've always had really good players; we just haven't had the NCAA success that we all would like. That's a process. The certain way we want to play, certain players we want to recruit – we just want to keep getting better.
SI: Obviously you lose some pretty good guys. How do you start building almost a brand new team this summer?
CN: Well, [Hugh] Greenwood is coming back, and I've got Deshawn Delaney, who started for us most of the year, a 6-foot-5 wing that's really talented. My son will be expected to do a lot more. He played really well for us during the year. Then I've got to find some guys who are going to accept opportunities and run with it. I've got some guys, I recruited the second-best JC recruit in the country [Jordan Goodman], who can help us right away. I've got a 7-1 kid, Obij Aget, that played a lot for us and was instrumental when Kirk was out hurt. I've got a good nucleus of guys coming back, and I've got a few good kids in Xavier Adams and Joe Furstinger and Jordan Goodman, as far as recruits. My biggest thing right now is, who's going to grab the opportunity? Because there's an opportunity there. I think they're capable of doing it. I just don't know who's going to do that.
SI: With the limited time you get to work with these guys, how do you start figuring out who's grasping those opportunities?
CN: Being around them. Their work ethic in the weight room. We've got guys doing yoga and we're going to do some pool work. Who's buying in, who's both feet in and who's not? Who's going to be able to pick up things a little quicker? I think that's one thing that hurt DD [Delaney] last year, he missed June and July with our team, that set him back and he really didn't start playing his best basketball until February. We'll be able to get a good gauge of who's picking up things. It's unique, because I think you get a good perspective of what kind of team you have early, if you have all your kids in summer school.
SI: You mentioned scheduling earlier. What do you want to change or enhance there?
CN: With scheduling, we're playing in big tournaments. We're playing in San Juan this year with a great field, and then we're going to play in the Diamond Head a year from now with a great field around Christmas. We got USC coming in here this year, we're going to play USC the following year there. We're trying to look for some neutral-site games against big-name teams that we haven't had in the past. This year, it's going to be a little bit different – our schedule won't be as tough as it was last year with a veteran team coming back. But it'll be adequate, and it'll give us a great challenge with a new team.
SI: Do you have any view on how you want the program to look after Year 2 going into Year 3?
CN: What we've done, I think we've gotten progressively better over the years. Continued success with our academic piece, but also having a team that plays hard, has a good brand and represents the state and the university the way they should. We're going to try to play a little faster. I think we've done that over the years progressively and last year we went from averaging about 62 possessions a game to right at 70. We're going to try to play a little bit faster, spread it out a little more. Just try to score a little bit quicker. That'll be the way I like to play.