The news started pouring in on Saturday morning, first broken by Andy Katz via Twitter: University of New Mexico men's basketball head coach Steve Alford will resign his job here to take the reins at UCLA. (Andy Katz, for those who might not remember, has a history in Albuquerque and seems like a natural to break this sort of news.) Alford had, merely days before, signed a contract extension with UNM, furthering his time in Albuquerque by a decade. As the rumors flew back and forth regarding buyouts, betrayal and hurt feelings all around, both UCLA and UNM moved quickly to offer their official statements. Alford held a noontime press conference to get his side of the story out and it became official.
In the ensuing days, Athletic Director Paul Krebs has named former assistant coach Craig Neal as the interim head coach and people have begun to speculate. Will Neal get that interim tag removed and become the next head coach of the Cherry and Silver? There are rumors that prized center Alex Kirk has told the University that he will transfer to UCLA if that's not the case. Of course, there are always clamors from all over the city to hire a big name.
The biggest question, beyond the next coach and the impact that will have on which players leave and which players stay, though, is the effect this will have on the team and its relationship with the city. Lobo fever was near its all-time high as the NCAA Tournament rolled around this year. People who hadn't cheered for the Lobos in years picked them as a Final Four team and bought tickets to the newly-renovated Pit in record numbers, averaging 11,000 tickets sold per year. After yet another disappointingly early exit from the post-season and the departure of a nearly uniformly revered coach, how will the fan base handle the change? Alford has already confirmed that he will take his son, Bryce Alford, with him to UCLA after graduation from La Cueva High School. And the reigning MWC player of the year, Kendall Williams, was himself plucked from UCLA by Alford, after the Bruins pulled his scholarship. In fact, the only other player, so far, to have committed to UNM for next year comes from California.
While UNM begins its search for the next person to guide the men's basketball team, Alford will be moving on to what he called, "the premier basketball program in the country." No matter how hurt any fan's feelings may be today, Alford should be recognized and commended for the job he did in establishing a winning culture in Albuquerque. As a fan of basketball, it should be acknowledged that this is probably a step up for him. As a fan of the Lobos, I'll look for a continuation of the success that Alford reignited in our city. And with a little bit of a grudge, I'll look forward to a UNM-UCLA match up.