Ordinarily it makes little sense to hire as head coach someone who hasn’t been a head coach, but Craig Neal’s circumstances are special. He’s not just any assistant but one of the best in the nation. (He has a five-year contract; most assistants go year-to-year.) He has worked alongside Steve Alford for seven seasons, and together they’ve averaged 23 victories — first at Iowa, now at New Mexico.
Last March the Lobos, who hail from the Mountain West Conference, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed. This was a lesser Lobo season, but they still went 21-12 in a league that yielded a No. 2 NCAA seed (San Diego State), a No. 3 (BYU) and a No. 8 (UNLV). And given New Mexico’s youth — only one senior on the roster — 21-12 and an NIT berth stands to be the worst this program does for a while.
Said Alford, speaking Sunday of Neal: “He’s been like an assistant head coach. He’s our recruiting coordinator; he’s our offensive coordinator.” (And Neal is not, you should know, the defensive coordinator who allowed BYU’s Jimmer Fredette to go for 52 points last weekend.) Then this from Alford: “I may be biased, but I think [Neal is] a slam dunk.”
He meant as head coach of Georgia Tech, which is in the market for one. And why, you might be interested to know, should an assistant working in Albuquerque be considered for a job in Atlanta?
Because Craig Neal went to Georgia Tech, played (very well) at Georgia Tech, loves Georgia Tech. He experienced Tech basketball at a time when it was the hottest ticket in town. Said Neal: “It used to be you couldn’t get in the place.”
That was in the middle ’80s, when Bobby Cremins was the coach and Mark Price was the point guard and Neal his backup. After Price exited in 1986, Neal would become the starter and make all-ACC. Some Tech backers have pointed to Price as the guy who should be the next Tech coach, but he has worked only sparingly in college basketball — he’s now the shooting coach for the Golden State Warriors — and would be a reach, resume-wise. Neal would not.
Alford: “What sets him apart is that he has had seven years in college ball after 1o years in the NBA [with the Toronto Raptors, first as a scout and then as Lenny Wilkens' assistant] When he walks into a recruit’s house, he hits every note — he has played and coached in the league, and he has played and coached at a high level in college.”
But what about the one gap, the part about never having been a head coach? Said Neal: “There are all kinds of cases at BCS schools of assistants succeeding. I’d have to know my limitations, and I’d hire my staff accordingly. I’d hire someone with head coaching experience.”
Something else of importance: Neal lived in Kennesaw when scouting for the Raptors — he advised drafting Tracy McGrady in 1997 and Vince Carter in 1998 — and he knows the South well. His dad coached for a decade at Pope High in Marietta, and the younger Neal is familiar with the history and hierarchy of the massively important AAU Atlanta Celtics. (Speaking of recruiting: Craig’s son Cullen figures to be a top recruit in 2013.)
Regarding Tech, Neal said: “I know the lay of the land. I know you must get student-athletes who understand the importance of academics. I know there’s a great community and great tradition. I know what it takes.”
Said Alford, who famously led Indiana to the 1987 NCAA title: “When you hire an alum as head coach, you get his heart. He’s not there because he can make more money or because it’s in the ACC, and when things go wrong he’s not looking for a way out. Next year Tech will have to play all road games [because of renovation to the former Alexander Memorial Coliseum], and that’s tough. But when you get an alum, his heart’s in the job.”
This isn’t to say Neal is the only man for Tech, or even the best man. This is to say that, because of who he is and where he has been, he deserves a chance to make his case to athletic director Dan Radakovich. He might be a career assistant, but he’s surely the only college assistant now working who can look at Georgia Tech and say, as he did Sunday, “That’s my dream job. That’s my school.”
And for an amended list of six (head) coaches who might be possibilities at Tech, click here.
By Mark Bradley