ALBUQUERQUE -- New Mexico is getting an early jump on that
sideshow of March Madness -- finding a new coach.
The Final Four is fertile territory for schools looking to make a hire and the Lobos are in the market now that Ritchie McKay is out.
Athletic director Paul Krebs announced Thursday that McKay's
contract will be terminated at the end of the season. The timing of the announcement was only a mild surprise, since a growing number of Lobo fans have been calling for his ouster.
"The intention all along was to make a decision at the end of the year, but there's a point when you realize a decision needs to be made sooner rather than later," Krebs said. "It allows us to begin to move forward to find the next coach."
The search, said Krebs, will go national and be "exhaustive." By starting now, New Mexico can cut down on competition from schools who wait until the end of the season before making a coaching change.
"It allows us to be open about the process, to start talking to candidates," Krebs said. "We're not sneaking around back alleys and trying to communicate with people. We can be public about our pursuit of a new head coach."
Krebs said while he's not working with any timeline, it's possible a new coach will be hired around Final Four week.
"You always want to move as quickly as possible," he said. "We need leadership and to end the uncertainty and speculation. But rather than having a definitive timeline, it's more important that you do a thorough, exhaustive search and find the right candidate, the right fit for the job."
In a city where the Lobos have always been THE GAME for decades, it doesn't take long for names to surface. The Albuquerque Journal said earlier this week that former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery had been contacted, a report Krebs denied.
There's Rob Evans, the former Arizona State and Mississippi coach who was considered the front-runner for the New Mexico job until McKay was abruptly hired by former athletics director Rudy Davalos.
Evans played college basketball at New Mexico State and high school ball in Hobbs, N.M., under venerable coach Ralph Tasker.
There also could be considerable sentiment for John Whisenant, coach of the Sacramento Monarchs of the WNBA, an Albuquerque resident and former New Mexico assistant under Norm Ellenberger in the 1970s.
"This is a program with great tradition, with high expectations. That's a good situation. I think there will be a lot of candidates interested," Krebs said.
Krebs said he would prefer to hire someone with head coaching experience but didn't rule out taking a current assistant.
"All things being equal, getting a proven commodity, somebody who's been in the seat, who's been successful, who understands all that goes into head coaching. I think that's very beneficial and very important, but I wouldn't rule out if there was an outstanding assistant coach out there," Krebs said.
That was the case when Krebs was athletic director at Bowling Green and hired a young, unknown assistant named Urban Meyer as the Falcons' head football coach.
Meyer, of course, left Bowling Green and led Utah to a Fiesta Bowl victory, then won last season's national championship at Florida.
"Urban Meyer, when I hired him at Bowling Green, had never been more than a position coach," Krebs said. "But here, the media attention and the expectations are high and ... I think a head coach probably better understands that than an assistant coach."
McKay and his assistants will finish the season. The Lobos (15-13, 4-9 Mountain West) have three regular-season games remaining, starting Saturday at Utah, followed by the Mountain West tournament.
"Please don't be sad for me. It's just the close of a chapter," a briefly emotional McKay said. "I don't have any animosity toward Paul or the administration. If it's best they make a change, I'm going to support it and continue to root for the
McKay, who had three years remaining on his contract, is 82-65 in five seasons at New Mexico, including a dismal 8-41 road record. He is 165-154 in an 11-year career that included stops at Portland State, Colorado State and Oregon State.
The details of his buyout are being worked out, but McKay stands to receive around $600,000, part of the price for the latest effort to get New Mexico back where it once was -- seven NCAA Tournament bids from 1991-99.
Fans, meanwhile, have left The Pit largely empty in recent years. New Mexico averaged 16,426 fans for home games in 2001-02, the season before McKay was hired. This season's 12,831 average is the lowest since the arena was renovated in the mid-1970s.
Besides declining attendance, Krebs cited the defection of numerous players, the string of road losses and a growing crescendo of criticism from fans. All weighed into the decision to fire McKay.
"It was going to be very difficult for coach McKay and his staff to continue to lead this program," Krebs said. "The constant speculation, the scrutiny from our fans. It got to a point where I thought the coaches could no longer be effective."