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Let us hope the Wolf Pack is ready to be hurt

April 13, 2019

He’s going to rip your heart out, Reno.

Be prepared.

He’ll sweep you off your feet with hard-nosed defense and toughness on the road. He’ll woo you with trips to the postseason and conference banners to hang from the rafters. He’ll dazzle you with pro-ready players and four-star recruits.

In the end, he’ll stand before a podium, wrap his manicured fingers around the front edge of the dais and proclaim himself a member of the Wolf Pack for life. Maybe throw in a signature for that long-term contract the school can barely afford, wearing his silk navy blue and silver tie that perfectly matches his tailored suit.

What he’ll also do is work tirelessly to restore his reputation by using your love as a prop for his makeover, then field phone calls in secret from a power school with deeper pockets.

It happened at New Mexico. It will happen at Nevada.

The appointment of Steve Alford as the next men’s basketball coach at Nevada probably came as a shock to Lobo fans still carrying a torch over the golden boy’s sudden departure for UCLA six years ago. Many of them — admit it, you know who you are — privately held out hope that he’d one day return to UNM and rebuild the Camelot that has fallen into disrepair since he left.

But don’t blame Steve. Who among us wouldn’t take the offer UCLA extended? A contract that more than doubled his salary and gave him governorship over one of the true blue blood programs of college hoops. Not to mention the SoCal life at a school that recruits top-flight talent with the casual confidence with which most of us butter our toast.

In college coaching, a profession where people eat their own young, the only loyalty is to those who sign the checks and the opportunities they afford. Loyalty exists only in a moment, when a coach says all the right things and smiles with all the right people.

It’s not Alford’s fault the Lobo basketball program has fallen off the radar, nor is it Paul Weir’s. Place the blame on the man who allowed it to happen, former athletic director Paul Krebs, as well as the players from the 2013-14 roster who held the school hostage with the demand that perpetual good cop Craig Neal take Alford’s place.

First, Krebs. Desperate to keep Alford in a cherry blazer, he literally wrote checks the school couldn’t cash. He promised a giant contract worth as much as $2 million annually over 10 years, by far the richest in state history for a college coach — or anyone else for that matter. It far exceeded the $1.25 million he was already making, which was a huge sum in its own right.

Krebs said he’d make ends meet by using revenues generated by the program to pay Alford’s salary. What that meant was raising ticket prices, raising prices at the concession stands and earning a few extra bucks on other things like parking and booster donations.

To Alford’s credit, he reportedly wasn’t a fan of any of it because he knew the blowback would be directed at him, not Krebs. He wanted his money but he didn’t want the fans knowing they’d have to pay for it. Krebs blew it, basically laying the blueprint for everyone to see before the contract was signed.

Less than two weeks later Alford was UCLA’s head coach, leaving UNM in a no-win situation where all five starters from his 29-win team that infamously flamed out against Harvard in the 2013 NCAA Tournament were scheduled to return.

The players publicly campaigned for Neal, Alford’s longtime assistant. Hiring “Noodles” would keep players like Tony Snell, Alex Kirk, Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood from going to the NBA or transferring out.

The school felt cornered. The fans did, too. At the time it seemed right to hire Neal but, as history shows, it was a disaster. Snell went to the NBA anyway and the team again flamed out early in the NCAA Tournament in 2014. The program has gone 82-78 ever since and, oh yeah, Neal made off with a $1 million buyout for getting fired all while attendance has hit an all-time low in The Pit.

That giant party of angst and anger you want to throw while booing Alford when he returns to The Pit next year? Try standing up and giving the man his due and, while you’re at it, send the folks in Reno a sympathy card; 2024 (or thereabouts) is going to be painful.

Will Webber has covered high school, college and professional sports in New Mexico for nearly a quarter century. Contact him at wwebber@sfnewmexican.com.