Last April, Craig Neal moved into the first seat on the bench when best friend Steve Alford left for UCLA and became the new head coach at New Mexico. It hasn’t been an easy transition. His Lobos dropped out of the national rankings after a few tough nonconference losses. But they’ve won three in a row and currently possess a second-place slot in the Mountain West. On Saturday, his program won a road game against Colorado State even though starting center Alex Kirk missed the game because of injury. Injuries aren’t the only things that Neal has had to overcome thus far. He recently talked to ESPN.com about his first season as the Lobos’ leader.
What did Saturday’s 68-66 road win over Colorado State, a game you all played without Kirk, say about this team?
Neal: Well, I just think our veteran guys have been there before, and I think it took us a [half] to figure out Alex wasn’t there. You’re losing 14, 15 points a game and 10 rebounds, and they hurt us on the offensive boards in the first half. He makes a difference with blocked shots. We played a little bit of a different style, but I think our guys were in tune with what we were trying to do. We went four guards a little bit and changed some things up. Their resilience has been amazing. To go 4-0 on the road to start conference season is really, really an accomplishment that is good for our team and our younger kids and our newcomers.
What’s the latest with Kirk?
Neal: It’s a day-to-day thing. He’s had it for about three games. Thought it was shin splints and just got a little bit, progressively worse. Our doctors are just taking precautionary measures to make sure he’s OK. … You want to make sure you don’t put a kid out there that’s hurt or in a bad situation with an injury or health-wise.
What’s been the biggest adjustment for you this season, moving from assistant to head coach?
Neal: Well, I think the biggest adjustment is not having Steve around. It might be a big adjustment for him, too, with me not around. I think that’s the biggest thing. We were together for so long. I got an opportunity to coach with my best friend for nine years and spend a lot of time together, not only coaching games, but off the floor and watching our kids grow up and just having a great relationship in basketball and off the court. Then I think the biggest transition for me is [the same for] any assistant coach who gets an opportunity … I recruited most of these kids, had relationships with these kids. My relationship doesn’t change but the way they view you and the way you view them as a head coach; there’s a transition period. Sometimes you were the buffer before, and sometimes you’re the guy making sure they’re all right and their families are good. And now it’s a little bit changed because you’re the head coach and you’re making a decision on who’s playing and who’s not playing. Your relationship doesn’t change. It’s [from] the perspective of you being a head coach now.
Your son, Cullen, suffered an appendix rupture during an offseason international trip. How scary was that situation for you and your family?
Neal: It was difficult because he’s taken a lot of criticism, a lot of hits to start the season, unfairly. He didn’t play up to his capabilities early. You’re talking about a kid that almost lost his life. [He then] came back, and a lot of the doctors didn’t know if it was a good idea that he came back, but he wanted to play this year. And now he’s finally gotten healthy and playing at a high level. He played a really good game against Marquette (24 points) that got us a good win in Vegas [Dec. 21], and he played very well against Fresno (17 points Jan. 18). … I think he’s back to normal health-wise and strength-wise, but you kind of lose perspective on how serious it was and [that] he was in a bad state. Got down to 158 pounds from 180. It makes you appreciate things a lot better and that he’s healthy and he’s OK. He’s going to miss shots. He’s going to turn the ball over, but at least he’s healthy, and he’s not in the state he was back in August.