ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Stopping at times to choke back tears during an introductory news conference Wednesday, Craig Neal stepped in to replace his childhood friend, Steve Alford, as the New Mexico men's basketball coach.
"I have to thank the guy who brought me here six years ago, Steve Alford, who has done more for this program than any coach in the history of the program," Neal said. "He's been a friend of mine since the third grade. It's very hard. We've been together for 10 years. We've worked hand in hand. It's been a partnership."
Alford ended that partnership Saturday when he accepted the job at UCLA after six years at New Mexico.
Now Neal steps in for his first head coaching position.
"It's been an amazing whirlwind," Neal said. "I'm overwhelmed. I'm extremely humbled by the support, the groundswell of support."
Many members of the community lobbied for Neal, as did former and current players.
"I couldn't be more excited for coach Neal," said junior guard Kendall Williams. "I know this decision pushes me forward to becoming a Lobo again. My loyalties have always been with the Lobos and this decision shows that they're trying to make the right strides and keep the right people here."
But the decision came down to more than that, said New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs.
"Continuity is really important," he said. "And next year is really important, the following year and the year after that and the year after that are equally important. So continuity for continuity's sake really didn't matter to me. Continuity with the right leader is what mattered."
Neal's deal is for five years with a base salary of $750,000 plus additional incentives for winning Mountain West and conference tournament championships, advancing in the NCAA tournament and for student-athletes reaching academic goals.
New Mexico finished 29-6 last season and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed before losing to Harvard.
"I talked to the players and we've got to get better in that tournament, the big tournament," Neal said. "And we're going to strive to do that. I don't think you can set a thing on the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, winning a game. I think once we get to the tournament we have to learn to improve and get better and try to win as many games as we can."
The players, who attended the crowded news conference en masse, applauded the announcement.
"On Saturday morning we were left with no coach and we had a lot of things to wonder about, question about," said Williams, who was the conference player of the year. "And now hiring coach Neal, it's great for everyone. But I still think it opens a lot of gates for people. People have to make a lot of decisions still."