By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Heeee’s back. Or soon will be.
According to a report from Albuquerque’s KQTM Radio (101.7-FM), former University of New Mexico coach Steve “Lobo for Life” Alford has been hired as head coach of Nevada.
That almost assuredly brings Alford back to the Pit when the schools meet in the upcoming season. The MWC schedule doesn’t have home-and-home games with all schools.
Earlier on Wednesday, Jeff Goodman of Stadium reported the Mountain West Conference school will hire him unless there is a “last-second breakdown in negotiations.”
“Our sources tell us it’s a done deal, so we went with it,” 101.7 president Joe O’Neill told Enchantment Sports, just after 7 p.m. (Mountain time)
Evan Daniels of 247Sports reported Alford was the “frontrunner” after the school discussed the position with a number of other candidates. UCLA fired Alford on Dec. 31 after losing at home to Liberty, coached by Ritchie McKay — who Alford replaced at UNM after McKay was fired in 2007.
Alford’s had six underachieving seasons with the Bruins, who previously fired former coach Ben Howland — a guy who led UCLA to three Final Fours and a national title game appearance.
The Nevada gig opened when Arkansas hired Eric Musselman away from the Wolf Pack. Musselman led Nevada to the Sweet 16 in 2018 and had the team ranked as high as No. 7 in the country this past season, but the Wolf Pack faded down the stretch and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to 10th-seeded Florida. Nevada was a 7 seed.
Alford led UNM to the NCAA Tournament three times, but went 1-3. His Lobos, a No. 3 seed, lost to 14th-seeded Harvard in the first round in 2013. After the season, Alford agreed to a 10-year extension with UNM — and the local newspaper crowed him “Lobo for Life,” but 10 days later Alford reneged and headed to UCLA.
Alford’s assistant, Craig “We Love Noodles” Neal, succeeded Alford at UNM promising to take the program to levels never before reached. Neal got the enormously-talented Lobos to the NCAA Tournament in his first season as a No. 7 seed, where they lost to 10th-seeded Stanford in the first round. Neal never got back to the postseason — losing in the first round of the MWC tournament three straight years — and was fired in 2017, being replaced by Paul Weir.
Interestingly, Alford, Neal and Weir all coached on the same staff at Iowa — where Alford was head coach for eight years, but left for New Mexico after school officials made announced he would be fired if he didn’t come up big the next season.
The move back to the MWC is probably a good one for Alford, who failed in his two jobs with Power 5 schools. He won only one NCAA Tournament game at Iowa, and also suffered a loss to a 14th seed as a 3 seed. The MWC has been fading during the past few years and is there for the taking.
Alford hiring bring to mind a couple of intriguing questions:
- Will Neal rejoin Alford at Nevada? That would be a huge irony. Nevada is the program that started the end of Neal’s Lobo career by erasing a 25-point deficit in the Pit in 2017 — and a 14-point deficit with 68 seconds left and UNM with the ball — to force overtime, then beat the Lobos in the Pit.
The game is still part of ESPN’s Bad Beats opening montage.
2. How will the local media homers react when Alford’s Wolf Pack plays Weir’s Lobos? It will be quite a dilemma for that group — not to mention a Lobo fan site that worked with the Alford/Neal regime to assist with enticing recruits. They worshiped the ground Alford and Neal walked on.
Hard to image the two could ever be true enemies of the homer hoard.
Fun times ahead, folks.
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.