April 6, 2011
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
If you only knew Don Flanagan through Xs and Os, through fundamental Lobo or Eldorado High basketball, then you are missing out.
If you only knew Flanagan as an architect of Pit excellence, as the master sculptor who took something raw and undefined and turned it into a polished museum piece, then you don't know the best side of this man.
Flanagan became a basketball legend and icon in New Mexico because of his marvelous and stunning success on both the high school and collegiate level. However, what he really carries into his retirement -- what he leaves behind -- is an example of how a person should develop along with his craft.
Flanagan is character and class and humility. If the NCAA ever wanted a poster child for what a collegiate coach should be, all they have to do is point to Flanagan as a man and as a teacher. There are no broken rules, no lies, no shortcuts, no academic failures in this man's past.
His success at Eldorado and the University of New Mexico produced numbers and excellence that could have easily produced one of those egomaniac coaches, who ooze of elitism and self-worship; whose character ends with a phony smile or a cold handshake.
With Flanagan, you found warmth in spirit or maybe a simple, but heartfelt conversation about family or basketball or maybe fly-fishing.
Lobo fans should not be sad about Flanagan's retirement from this game he loved and in which he excelled. There is quality family time and some quality waters awaiting him. He deserves both. Of course, it's impossible not to reflect upon what Flanagan gave us.
Flanagan leaves the game of basketball after 32 seasons with a career mark of 741-181. He is as New Mexico iconic as Bob King, Ralph Tasker, Jim Hulsman, Bill Gentry or Tow Diehm. He coached the UNM Lobos for 16 years, but it should have been an even 20. In 1991, the University of New Mexico made a mistake. The Lobos hired the wrong coach.
No UNM administrator should ever take credit for the hiring of Don Flanagan. This was a community push. This was the will of a fan base that realized long before anyone at UNM that there was a special coach strolling the sidelines at Eldorado.
Flanagan's numbers at Eldorado were almost impossible to digest and believe. From 1979 to 1995, the Eagles won 401 games and lost 13. The Lobo coach he would eventually replace won 14 games in four seasons. At Eldorado, Flanagan's Eagles flew to winning streaks of 77, 74, 69, 66 and 60 games and won 11 state crowns. The Lobo coach he replaced never won back-to-back games in posting numbers almost impossible to digest: 14-96.
In 1991, Flanagan applied for the Lobo job and was the top choice of a selection committee and a community of Lobos, but UNM decided to go with a coach possessing collegiate experience. On paper, the decision made some sense. On the court, the product became a town joke and in 1995 Flanagan again tried to become a Lobo.
Ironically, he was offered the job, turned it down, and then changed his mind, in part, because of the depth of the challenge. Could Flanagan do at UNM, at the collegiate level, what he did at Eldorado?
Of course, there was a huge difference. At Eldorado, Flanagan took over a powerhouse program in arguably the most prestigious high school in Albuquerque. At UNM, he inherited a doormat; a program with no tradition and miles behind most of the programs he was asked to beat.
In his first season, he won 14 games. In his third season, he went 26-7 as the Lobos grew into a program that won three regular-season conference titles and six league tourney titles.
The Lobos dropped women's basketball from 1987 to 1991 and then went 14-96 in the four years prior to Flanagan. In 1991, UNM lost games 108-45, 100-46, 83-42, 92-22, 95-48, 104-50 and 86-34. If you went to any Lobos games from 1991 to 1995, you could hear almost anything in The Pit except for the roar of fans. The place was almost empty.
What Flanagan immediately sparked was the excitement of a city and a state for the possibility of excellence. UNM finally had hired the local coach of choice, the Northeast Heights legend, who had produced magical numbers at Eldorado.
The imagination and hopes of Lobo fans were drawn toward The Pit. And so were their feet. In 1995-96, The Pit attracted 56,018 fans for a 16-game average of 3,501 -- good for the No. 21 spot in the nation. The Lobos soared to an 11,896 average in 2002-03 (No. 4) and have been Top 10 every season since 1998-99.
What Flanagan leaves for the next coach -- and what UNM can offer -- is a program with dynamics and tradition that few colleges can equal. This job is not a stepping-stone in a resume. Like Paul Krebs, UNM's vice president of athletics put it: this is a destination job.
In men's basketball, the chasers of NBA dreams so often are attracted to big-time schools in BCS conferences. The guys often (too often) look at college and TV time as a stepping-stone to pro ball. The women often are more realistic, more grounded.
The women look for quality academic opportunities provided within a quality basketball environment. They usually don't daydream about basketball beyond college. This makes the University of New Mexico a destination spot for players, too.
The Lobos have one of the finest basketball arenas in the nation in the renovated Pit. The Lobos offer a fan base and the support of a community that actually might be unequally nationally because of the absence in the Albuquerque area of other major colleges or major pro teams. The UNM athletic department also stresses academic success and academic support for its athletes.
And if you want tradition and winning and titles, well, Flanagan has provided and left lots and lots of that stuff, too.
The Pit loses a legend and a friend and a bundle of class when Don Flanagan officially walks away at the end of the month. Maybe the best thing we can say is, "Thank you."