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ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — New Mexico didn’t have to look far to find its next head coach.
Craig Neal, who spent the past six seasons as the team’s top assistant, was hired Tuesday to replace Steve Alford.
Athletic director Paul Krebs made the announcement in a one-word tweet: “Noodles,” a reference to Neal’s nickname. The university confirmed that Neal would be introduced as UNM’s 20th head basketball coach during a news conference Wednesday.
As assistant head coach under Alford, Neal helped the Lobos win back-to-back Mountain West Conference titles and reach three NCAA tournaments.
Players and fans had voiced their support for Neal as the top choice after Alford revealed last weekend that he was leaving for UCLA. Emotions were raw the last few days, but Krebs’ announcement helped dissolve some of the uncertainty and disappointment that was sparked by Alford’s departure.
While Krebs was guarded about the future of the head coaching spot on Saturday, he said during a news conference that Neal was a candidate and would provide continuity and stability for the program.
“If you’ve been around the program for the last six years, it’s not hard to understand coach Neal has had a strong impact on the program,” Krebs said. “Craig is a critical part of the success. I think Craig is an outstanding coach.”
On Tuesday, Krebs also praised Neal for helping the team raise its academics to record levels and for pouring so much energy into the community.
Neal’s five-year contract will be worth $750,000 a year, plus incentives.
Neal said in a statement late Tuesday that he’s excited to build on what was started six years ago.
Before coaching at New Mexico, Neal spent three seasons with Alford at Iowa. Prior to that, he spent several seasons with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors as a scout and then as an assistant coach.
Neal played eight years in the NBA, CBA and Europe, beginning in Portland where he was a third-round draft pick of the Trail Blazers in 1988. He also played in Miami and Denver.
A two-year starter at Georgia Tech in the mid-1980s, Neal earned all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors as a senior in 1988 when he set the conference single-season record with 303 assists.
Neal has been involved with every facet of the Lobos program since joining the team in 2007, from on-the-floor coaching to game strategies and recruiting.