By Russell Gurule
For Enchantment Sports
After reading that headline, many of you probably said “yes” to that question. What type of success could be obtained by a school that reached its highest glory in ’78? The program has gone through peaks and valleys in the ensuing decades; always one good bracket, or one bucket, away from that elusive Sweet Sixteen.
The mantra in Loboland has been “Sweet Sixteen or die.” That has been the benchmark for the last couple of decades. Nobody had ever really considered an Elite Eight, or possibly a Final Four, appearance until five years ago when Steve Alford held the reigns
Yet that Sweet Sixteen has consistently been the Mount Everest of Lobo Basketball. In order to go forward, one has to look back at history to find the road to success.
(Editors note: After six seasons at UNM, Stevie “Lobo for Life” Alford bolted to UCLA in 2013 after his No. 3 seeded-Lobos lost to No. 14 seed Harvard in first round of NCAA Tournament. The Lobos have never had back-to-back wins in the NCAA Tournament in school history, but were among the final 16 teams in 1968 and 1974 — before the term “Sweet 16” was used.)
College Basketball has had many legendary programs and head coaches who have brought the game to a high level of excellence. I decided to research how these programs reached the dizzying levels of success that seem to elude New Mexico.
One thing that really stands out with all these programs is longevity of head coaches. It would be safe to say without bringing out the calculator, that the tenure of stay on average is about 15 years.
To name a few: Leonard Hamilton, head coach of Florida State, has been going strong since 2002. Mike Brey of Notre Dame has been at the helm for 18 years. Scott Drew has built a nice program at Baylor for 15 years now. These are not exactly household names. The legendary head coaches of college basketball are now well into their second and third decade of coaching.
Longevity is key
Longevity is proving to be a major key to success. Case in point: Every school in the
Power Five Conferences has had a head coach with a tenure of longer than 11 years. Except Rutgers and Clemson. Virginia Tech came in exactly at 11 years with Washington State coming up the rear at 12 years.
How does New Mexico compare? David Bliss comes in at 11 years of swimming in the fish bowl of Lobo basketball. Roy Johnson, who probably could be considered one of the patriarchs of UNM, came in at 10 years. Bob King the Godfather of Lobo basketball also comes in at 10 years. After these three, there is a steady drop off of tenure.
To put this into perspective. Bill Self, the head coach of Kansas, is entering his 16th season. Since 2003, the year he started, New Mexico is now on its fourth head coach. New Mexico clearly goes through head coaches like some people go through marriages. This translates into buyout after buyout which leaves the program devoid of needed revenue to invest for the future.
How do these head coaches last so long? All of them were able to gather talent for success. Yet there is another factor. They have support from top to bottom. They are allowed to fail and make mistakes. They are allowed to grow and evolve as head coaches. These are the key factors that stand out with a majority of these programs.
What is the next step in success? Recruiting! Or should I say consistent recruiting. One clear way to look at a program’s success is through national recruiting team rankings. Whoever gets the best players generally has the best chance for success. After doing a brief search through 247sports (formerly known as Scout.com) team rankings for high school recruits which dates back as far as 2001, you’ll find that a majority of the top schools posted a ranking each year in their top 100.
How did New Mexico fare? From 2001 up until present time, New Mexico posted a ranking in the top 100 at least eight times with its highest ranking coming in at 21 during the Alford years. I might add that New Mexico has done a good job with impact transfers over the course of the last 10 years. Transfers have become the new Juco which was popular to do in the ’90s and ’80s. This has been an avenue for some schools who aren’t affiliated with a Power 5 conference to become successful.
Ultimately, high school recruiting is an area that New Mexico has to become better in order to reach that coveted Sweet Sixteen, or even further. Many supporters of New Mexico have said in the past and even now, that New Mexico has many disadvantages when recruiting high school kids.
Consider this: New Mexico may have to compete with the Arizonas or the UNLVs of the world, and it may seem like a distant post in a faraway land. I’m sure Wyoming or Washington State can relate. Yet, look at a Tennessee who has to compete against a Kentucky, or Virginia in their respective area of the nation. There are many examples like this such as North Carolina State or Wake Forest. Even a Georgetown has to deal with many competitors.
Facing the competition
Every school in the nation has a disadvantage in one way or another. One school may be located in a large populated area which usually translates into more schools competing for talent. Another school may be located in an isolated area which could limit how far they can recruit either because of budget or lack of exposure.
One way to overcome these obstacles is to establish relationships all over the country within the basketball community, and improve youth development within their respective states. It’s been said that the best recruiters are the ones that never come home. New Mexico will need those types of people along with better youth development to reach success. Right now New Mexico is behind the curve with a lot of catching up to do.
Television and the shoe companies are another huge factor in recruiting. Many of the top programs are on national and cable every week. They are also at the forefront of social media and all that it has to offer. These programs also have strong local broadcasting across their respective states. Shoe companies are also playing a big role in furthering the brand of these schools. These are all areas that New Mexico has to improve upon in order to succeed. They will need excellent partners in all these areas. Right now would anybody consider New Mexico’s contracts good deals?
Recruiting is the life blood of any program. Everything else is based on the sole purpose of recruiting for success. Just like universities should be about the students. College basketball should be about the players. How strong is New Mexico’s commitment to players?
Now for my guidelines on how to predict any season of Lobo basketball. I refer to these guidelines every time the balls bounce in October. But first I refer back to history which has played a pivotal role in developing this system.
Fact: New Mexico has proven throughout the decades that they have enough talent to win 20 games in any given year.
Fact: Every time New Mexico has gone to the NCAA Tournament, there has been 1 to 4 pro-level players on the roster — players with the ability to play after college, whether it be overseas or getting drafted by the NBA.
Guideline 1: New Mexico will win 20 games if … now this is a big “if”: There’s no dissension on the team. No critical injuries. The coaching staff is able to make adjustments during critical times during the game. New Mexico is able to get the breaks, meaning the Lobos take advantage of favorable conditions during the season. Last-seconds shots are made. Good foul calls, and the fans are able to keep their pitch forks in the closet, or under the bed.
Guideline 2: New Mexico will win 25 games if there’s one pro-level player and a solid team leader. Refer back to guideline 1.
Guideline 3: New Mexico will win 25-30 games if there’s at least 2-4 pro-level players along with a solid team leader, and a solid bench. Refer back to guidelines 1 and 2. If the Lobos reach this point. This where the cream truly rises to the top.
All these guidelines are yet to be determined in October. There is so much more that could be written about finding the formula of success for Lobo basketball. Many of the subjects have been touched upon and require a thorough discussion, and a long hard look in the mirror.
Let’s move on to the big picture. New Mexico has a unique opportunity to learn from the past and be able to grow for a brighter future. Paul Weir will be entering his third season as a head coach (second at UNM). Will New Mexico’s fan base allow head coach Weir to make mistakes and evolve as a head coach? Will the fan base keep their pitch forks in the closet, or under the bed long enough to collect dust? Will the administration go all in with support? Will coach Weir last longer than 11 years, or will it be five years and another buyout? These questions and many more remain unanswered, and they will stay unanswered unless action is taken.
As you already know, my guideline prediction is a possible 20 win season with a remote chance at 25 wins. So here’s to another season of Lobo basketball! Cheers!
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