By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
One was never hired as New Mexico Lobo head men’s basketball coach.
The other was fired from the position.
And this weekend must be leaving many Lobo fans wondering, “What if?”
While the Lobos have never made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (see below, 1968 and 1974 fans), one of the program’s former coaches got there on Saturday and another is knocking on the door today.
Tony Benford, a Hobbs, N.M., native and long-time Lobo assistant who was a finalist at least twice for the Lobo head coaching position, led LSU into this year’s Sweet 16 with an emotional 69-67 win against Maryland on Saturday in the East Regional. He is the interim head coach at third-seeded LSU (28-6), which suspended head coach Will Wade earlier this month after being caught on a wiretap discussing a possible payment to a player.
McKay, who took the Lobos to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 in his third year as Lobo coach but was fired by then-UNM athletic director Paul Krebs two years later, and his 12th-seeded Liberty Flames (29-6) face fourth-seeded Virginia Tech (25-8) today in the East Regional with another berth in the Sweet 16 on the line.
There is a ton of Enchantment here. McKay’s dad, Joe McKay, was a Lobo basketball standout in the 1960s. Benford was a Hobbs hoop star under legendary coach Ralph Tasker.
There is so much irony in the mix here. And here’s something to chew on — and I know, there’s a long way to go. But if LSU wins one more game and Liberty wins two, guess which coaches will go head-to-head next weekend for a regional title?
Benford and McKay — two guys I covered closely during my newspaper days and have known well for decades — are two of the best dudes to ever work the Lobo sidelines.
It’s a different way to look at Lobo Pride. But man, am I proud of those two!
I say it often, but karma is an amazing thing!
OK, I know Benford didn’t light the college hoop world on fire in his stint as head coach, going 65-96 in five seasons at North Texas. But he has done an amazing job at LSU since Wade’s suspension earlier this month.
How amazing? Benford joins ex-San Diego State and Michigan coach Steve Fisher as the only other interim coach to take a program to the Sweet 16. Fisher led Michigan to the national title in 1989.
And Benford has LSU in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006.
Benford deserved a shot at the UNM gig. McKay, deserved much better at UNM when he had it.
I won’t be a hypocrite. I really liked Ritchie, his long-time assistant Brad Soucie and his then-Lobo assistants Scott Didrickson and Duane Broussard. I still do. Great guys, all. But I did my share of stories about some issues the program had at times.
The stories were fair, but some were especially harsh in a day and age when the media covered the team journalistically, and not as fan sites. Ritchie left UNM with his head held high and with total class.
The entire staff did.
“We are all still very close,” Broussard told me last night of that staff. “I just talked to Ritchie (Friday) and I’m so happy for him. He’s had a tremendous journey, and this is the culmination. It’s really great.”
More irony, of course, was Broussard seeing McKay in person earlier this season in Los Angeles. Broussard was an assistant under Steve “Lobo for Life” Alford at UCLA the past six seasons. Alford was fired after Liberty ripped UCLA 73-58 at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 29.
At the time, it was seemingly an embarrassing loss for the underachieving Alford and the Bruins.
Not as much now.
“I knew his team would be really good this season,” Broussard said. “But I didn’t think, even with our struggles being so detrimental at the time, we would lose. But as the game unfolded, I thought, ‘Wow. He really, really has a good team.
“I’m genuinely happy for him.”
Me, too. Ritchie and I were never on bad terms, and we were on great terms when he left New Mexico. That’s never changed.
I had great respect for him, and I’m proud to call him a friend.
The same goes for Tony Benford. He’s another of the game’s true gentleman.
Talk about “We Are New Mexico!”
Tony and Ritchie truly are. Hey, I’m still a journalist, but I’m also human. And I’m cheering like I did when I was a kid.
SOUR 16: So back to the Lobos and their lack of Big Dance success. I’ll get deeper into it during this year’s tournament, but for now:
Bob King (1968) and Norm Ellenberger (1974) did coach Lobo teams into the NCAA Tournament, where they were part of the final 16 teams. But the field was far, far smaller both times and was years from being 64 teams, much less 68. There was no such thing as a Sweet 16.
The ’68 team, maybe the best in Lobo history, was one of four teams in the West Regional in the Pit. It didn’t have to win a tournament game to get there, as only 23 schools were in that year’s field.
But Lobo great Greg “Stretch” Howard was ineligible for the event, because junior college transfers weren’t allowed to play the year of their transfer.
The Lobos lost in the first game of the regional to Santa Clara, then lost to New Mexico State in the now-defunct consolation game. Lew Alcindor-led UCLA, which beat NMSU in the Pit in the regional semifinal, then beat Santa Clara for a berth in the Final Four. The Bruins went on to bomb Houston in the national semifinal, then North Carolina in the national title game — in the days before Big Lew became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Man, I know a goofy kid who almost got his autograph just before tip-off of the game against Santa Clara that year. That’s also worth a story down the road.
In 1974, Ellenberger’s 17th-ranked Lobos did win a game to get to the West Regional, beating Idaho State in the first round. But they lost to San Francisco 64-61 in the regional semifinals. That game followed one of the most dramatic in tournament history, when UCLA beat Dayton in triple overtime.
Two days later, UCLA crushed San Francisco for another West Regional title — this time behind Bill Walton. But the Bruins didn’t win it all under John “Sam Gilbert” Wooden that year. North Carolina State did.
The Lobos, however, did beat Dayton 66-61 in the West Regional consolation game in 1974 — making that the only year New Mexico has ever won two games in the same NCAA Tournament. The Lobos, obviously, never have won back-to-back games in the event, or they would have made a Sweet 16.
Charlie Harrison, Gary Colson, “Disgraced” Dave Bliss, Fran Fraschilla, McKay, “Lobo for Life” Alford, Craig “We Love Noodles” Neal and current coach Paul Weir have a combined 6-13 NCAA Tournament record at UNM since 1974.
It’s a different story for Benford (2-0) and McKay (1-1) as head coaches in the Huge Hootenanny.
And is it ever great to see for both of them!
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com