There was a time when New Mexico’s women’s basketball was on the cusp of becoming one of the more vibrant programs in the nation. You have to blame the brain trust at UNM for allowing a golden opportunity to slip away.
BY RICHARD STEVENS
The empty seats in The Pit have a voice. The voices send a message. They speak of potential lost. They speak of what could have been.
Those Pit voices haunt us like the moans of ghosts in a drafty castle. The Pit is becoming a bit drafty, too – too much empty space.
There was a time when New Mexico’s women’s basketball was on the cusp of becoming one of the more vibrant programs in the nation. Don Flanagan had it going. You might recall when his Lobos played in the NCAA Tournament in The Pit how University Arena rocked at 18,000 strong, like in the days of Norm Ellenberger, Michael Cooper and Marvin Johnson. The Pit’s fan base gave the Lobos a huge edge – a recruiting tool – that had few equals.
At UNM – long, long ago – the athletic experience in The Pit (fan wise) rivaled that of Tennessee or UConn. Incredibly, it was a hot hand that UNM inexplicably folded. You have to blame the brain trust at UNM for allowing a golden opportunity to slip away.
The problem to some is the selection of Yvonne Sanchez as Flanagan’s replacement. Not that Sanchez is a bad coach. It’s more that the Lobo women’s program was on the verge of being something outstanding – with national appeal – and UNM needed to make an honest effort to bring in a name coach with exactly that – national appeal. Sanchez is not a “name” coach. Not even close.
Paul Krebs, UNM’s director of athletics, picked Sanchez. The primary reason seemed to be that Sanchez was “excited and happy” to get the job. Krebs was lazy. Krebs had no vision. If “happy to be here,” is the primary requirement, maybe we are lucky that “Snake” (the self-appointed super fan for men’s basketball) didn’t apply for the men’s position when Krebs was looking for a replacement for Steve Alford.
Sanchez hasn’t done badly – thanks to the Mountain West being one of the worst conferences in the nation – but she hasn’t excelled. It would be a surprise to many if she returns the program to the glory days. It might be impossible for any coach to return the program to those days. Once you lose that edge in college athletics, in a mid-level conference, it is difficult to pull it back. It will be interesting to see if Boise State can recapture its blue-turf edge in football. When you lose to the Lobos at home, you have problems.
Sanchez needs to recapture a fan base that is showing less and less interest. The season tickets sell well and help pad attendance, but too many of those fans have become ghosts and leave empty seats.
Sanchez’s head was on the chopping block in 2014-15 heading into the 2015 Mountain West wars. She had just come off an embarrassing loss to New Mexico State. She was seen bar-hopping in Las Cruces the night before the game and her team looked ill-prepared to face the Aggie press.
When she took the Lobos to Europe two summers back, her team did not have shoot-arounds prior to those European games. The Italy trip came across as a glorified vacation for Sanchez and assistant Janice Ruggiero. Basketball, it seemed, took a second seat to wine tasting.
Sanchez’s head might not be on the chopping block this season, but she needs to do better. She was swept by the Aggies this season. Her Lobos also lost to Texas El Paso. The pain here is in remembering that the Lobos were on the cusp of becoming a Southwest power. Now, they’re the whipping child for UTEP and NMSU.
To shoot for what “could have been” in this program probably is to shoot at distant stars with a slingshot and a Sweet 16 prayer.
But it would be nice if the Lobos clawed their way into the NCAA playoffs. If Sanchez can’t do it, maybe “Snake” is looking for a job.
Richard Stevens is a former sports writer for The Albuquerque Tribune. More recently he was an insider at the Lobo athletic department. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.