Neal did not speak to the media after the poorly-attended Howl, nor did he allow his players to speak to the media
Coach Shuns Media, Snubs Fans at Annual Event
Editor’s Note: A cover promo to this story in the Oct. 19 issue in correctly referred to Lobo Football Coach Bob Davie
BY RICHARD STEVENS
If you are beginning to think that New Mexico Men’s Basketball Coach Craig Neal doesn’t “get it,” you’re probably not alone.
The cash cow of the UNM athletics program is men’s basketball, and the Lobos need fans, fans, fans. The program isn’t exactly in the skids, but so far the direction established by Neal amounts to a downward spiral.
He showed no sign of changing that direction at last Friday’s Lobo Howl at The Pit. Basically, Neal disrespected the fans and disrespected the Albuquerque media.
They say you have one chance to make a good first impression, and the impression given by the 2016-17 Lobos during The Howl was that Neal doesn’t care much about the fans. Neal did not speak to the media after the poorly-attended Howl, nor did he allow his players to speak to the media.
First, Neal should be reminded that part of his contract is to market his product. The media is a vehicle, a tool by which Lobo fans make connections to the coach, to the players and to the program. That link was denied by Neal on Friday. Instead, he put out a halfhearted, poorly worded, mistake-riddled video that lasted a jump shot past a minute. It was an insult.
Neal is coming off back-to-back seasons in which his Lobos did not make the postseason. The football team is struggling through a bland season (so far), and the cash cow needs to be marketed and milked. Ticket sales are down; it will be interesting to see if UNM can sell all of the sky suites from which the fat cats look down on the average Joes, who really are the heartbeat of what little remains of Lobo mania. It will be interesting if WisePies Pizza makes its balloon payment in December.
So what was Neal thinking? Does he really want his Lobo team to be an island distancing itself from the fans? Has his ego ballooned so much that he thinks he is above wooing his fan base? Is he still pouting because his son was not warmly embraced by the Lobos’ fans?
Do you think it might have been wise for Neal to say something to the fans in attendance? Would it have been good PR to talk to the media – especially the golden throats from TV, who often have to fight to share their limited TV time with the Lobos? Did Neal not notice that this was one of the lowest-attended (5,463 estimated) Howls ever?
Neal blew it. His bosses blew it. The UNM marketing department blew it.
Neal needs to win and recapture the passion of The Pit. He has a chance this season.
The Mountain West, once again, is mediocre, and Neal has put together an athletic team that has a chance to battle for the title – or at least finish in the top three. And what is Neal’s biggest advantage? Answer: The Pit/WisePies Arena – which means the fans he showed little concern for during and after the Howl.
Neal’s background in hoops is pedigreed. He knows enough Xs and Os to get by. It’s not a complicated game to coach. But a Lobo coach cannot disconnect from the fans or the local media who give him free exposure. Neal needs to suck it up and start acting more adult – more professional. He also needs to be coached – and maybe not allowed to write his own public messages.
Neal’s mistake was highlighted by the contrast presented by the New Mexico women’s team and its coach, Mike Bradbury.
Bradbury spoke to the media. Bradbury’s players spoke to the media. In contrast to the men, the Lobo women were engaging and wise enough to try to connect with the fan base they will need to lean on in Bradbury’s first year digging out of the hole left by Yvonne Sanchez.
The tradition of the Lobo women’s basketball program has faded and needs to be rebuilt. Bradbury knows a good place to start: With the fans. Most likely, Bradbury will try to wrap the Albuquerque media around his finger, too. Not such a difficult thing to do.
Neal ought to give it a try.
Richard Stevens is a former sports writer for The Albuquerque Tribune. More recently, he was an insider at the Lobo athletics department. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.