When Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs tweeted one simple word on April 1, 2013, the state of New Mexico and the national college basketball community knew the University of New Mexico had found their man.
Craig Neal, known affectionately across the nation as “Noodles”, was named the 20th men’s basketball coach at the University of New Mexico prior to the 2013-14 season after spending six seasons as associate head coach on Steve Alford’s staff with the Lobos.
In his first season as head coach, Neal became the first rookie coach in program history to lead the Lobos to the NCAA Tournament and compiled a record of 27-7. His 27 wins were the most by a rookie coach at UNM and the fifth-most in school history as well. Neal’s 2013-14 Lobos gave New Mexico its third consecutive Mountain West Tournament crown, becoming the first program in conference history to achieve the feat. It was UNM’s seventh conference championship in six seasons.
The 2013-14 Lobos featured New Mexico’s eighth All-American in senior Cameron Bairstow who was one of four Lobos to receive all-conference honors. Bairstow and Kendall Williams were both All-MW First Team selections with Alex Kirk making the All-MW Third Team and Hugh Greenwood being named All-MW Honorable Mention. Williams and Kirk were also members of the MW’s All-Defensive team. Neal himself was a finalist for a pair of national awards in the Joe B. Hall award (top rookie coach) and the Jim Pheland Award (national coach of the year).
The success and achievements of his first season as head coach mixed with the hard work and accomplishments of six years on the Lobo bench prior made Craig Neal even more of a national name. He inked a new contract in July of 2014 to keep him at the helm of the Lobo Basketball program until 2020.
The 2014-15 season saw Neal become the second fastest Lobo head coach to 40 wins, earning win number 40 in his 53rd game as head coach, one game shy of Norm Ellenberger who won 40 of his first 52 games as head coach in the 1970’s. UNM was the last team in the nation to concede 70 points or more in a game (23 games) en route to a defensive scoring average of 60.2 points. It was the second-best points allowed mark in three decades. Hugh Greenwood was named to the All-MW Third Team and became the second guard in Lobo history to finish a career with at least 1,000 points and 600 rebounds.
Known for player development, New Mexico has had three players selected in the NBA Draft since Neal took over the program. Tony Snell was selected 20th overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 2013 NBA Draft while Cam Bairstow was a second round selection of Chicago in the 2014 NBA Draft. Alex Kirk was also on the 2014-15 opening day roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
High level success on the court has been matched by major academic achievements in the classroom under Craig Neal. UNM had a perfect APR score in the NCAA’s 2014 report. New Mexico posted a record-breaking semester in the classroom in the Fall of 2014. The Lobos posted a team grade point average of 3.02, which marked the first semester of a team gpa of 3.0 or higher in program history. It topped the team’s 2.94 gpa in the spring of 2014, an eight-year high at the time.
At his introductory press conference, Neal stated, "I'm truly honored to be the head coach at the University of New Mexico. Over the past six years my family and I have been overwhelmed by the support we have received in this community. Coach Alford allowed me the opportunity to really make an impact on this program, and I'm excited to continue building on what we started six years ago."
"We are excited that Craig Neal will be our next basketball coach," said Krebs. "We did a tremendous amount of work and research in a very short time. Craig was a major part of a staff that has not only won championships but graduated student-athletes, raised our academics to record levels, and poured a tremendous amount of energy into our community in the form of service projects. Craig probably had as much freedom with our program in making decisions as any associate head coach in the country, and his time working with Coach Alford has prepared him fully for this task."
Said UNM President Dr. Robert G. Frank, "Coach Neal understands what being a Lobo is all about. He impressed me with his vision, dedication, and passion for leading here."
Neal ran the offense and was heavily involved in the day-to-day operation of the program during an era of unprecedented success as Alford’s top lieutenant from 2007 to 2013, winning 155 games over those six seasons, the most successful six-year period in school history. Neal, who handled the offense for the Lobos, helped New Mexico consistently finish at the top of the conference in most offensive statistics.
The Lobos finished in the top four in scoring offense in each of the past, and in top four in both scoring margin and field goal percentage. UNM has also finished in the top four in assists in all six years, and in the top three in assist-turnover ratio as well with Neal running the offense.
With New Mexico, Neal has been a part of four of the five of the winningest teams in school history, as the 2009-10 team won a school record 30 games, the 2012-13 team won 29 games, and the 2011-12 team tied for the third-most wins in school history with 28.
Iowa posted a 63-35 record while Neal was on staff, including consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes won 25 games in 2005-06, the second highest total in school history. They also captured the Big Ten Conference tournament title, set a school record with 10 wins over top 25 opponents and ran off a school-record 18-game winning streak in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, winning all 17 home games in 2005-06. Neal was instrumental in Iowa's recruiting efforts. More than one publication ranked the 2006-07 class as one of the top 10 catches in the nation.
Neal served as an assistant coach with the Raptors from 2000-03 and was involved in scouting and player development in 2003-04. With Toronto he served under Lenny Wilkens, the winningest coach in NBA history. He was also a Toronto scout for four seasons before becoming an assistant coach in 2000.
Neal was a scout in North America and Europe for one year before joining the Iowa staff, scouting high school, junior college, college and European players for the NBA Draft and for trade possibilities. He was also involved with development of current roster players, recruiting of free agents and selecting players for summer league and training camps.
As an assistant coach from 2000-03, Neal was involved with practice preparation, advance scouting, and the preparation and implementation of opponent scouting reports. He managed and directed Toronto's player development program, both during the season and the summer. Neal coached Toronto's summer league team for three years and was the lead coach in directing all Raptor college pre-draft workouts. His duties also included assisting with the operations budget, working with advance scouting team and coordinating schedules for Toronto scouts.
Neal earned the nickname of “Noodles” for his wiry build as a point guard in his prep and collegiate days. He also played eight professional seasons in the NBA, CBA and Europe, beginning in Portland where he was a third-round draft pick of the Blazers in 1988. He also played in Miami and Denver in the NBA and played in three championship series while competing in the CBA. Neal served as a player and coach in his final season in the CBA (1994-95) before joining the Toronto organization. He was involved in professional basketball for 16 years.
“Noodles” was a two-year starter at Georgia Tech in the mid-1980s. He earned all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors as a senior in 1988 when he set the ACC single-season record with 303 assists. Neal's playing career at Tech spanned five seasons, as he was limited to just four games in 1984-85 due to injury. He averaged 7.7 points as a senior. Neal averaged a league-best 9.5 assists per game (11.6 in conference games) that season, which still stands as a single-season record at Georgia Tech. His 659 career assists was a school record at the time and now ranks third best at Tech. Neal's 5.2 career assist average is fourth best at Tech and his 127 career steals is the 11th best total at the school.
Neal was a member of five Yellow Jacket teams that advanced to postseason play, including an NIT appearance in 1984 and NCAA Tournament berths the following four years. Tech advanced to the regional final in 1985 before losing to top-seed Georgetown, and the Sweet Sixteen in 1986. After a first round loss in 1987, Georgia Tech defeated Iowa State in 1988 before falling to Richmond in the second round. Neal earned his bachelor's degree in management from Georgia Tech in 1988.
The native of Washington, Ind., played prep basketball at Washington High School, for his father, Stan. Craig earned all-America recognition and was a member of the Indiana All-Star team following his senior year in 1983.
Neal was involved with the NBA's Team Up community service program in Toronto. He founded the Craig Neal/Grant Delagrange benefit golf tournament in Fort Wayne, Ind., with proceeds dedicated to schools for autistic and Down Syndrome children.
Neal was born February 16, 1964. He and his wife, Janet, have two sons, Cullen and Dalton.