Ortiz y Pino
The Firing of Ritchie McKay
A loss for the Lobos
By Jerry Ortiz y Pino
I knew Ritchie McKay’s father, Joe, when I was a UNM undergrad living in the Mesa Vista dormitory back in the early ’60s. I and all of our fellow residents liked Joey.
He was a friendly, quiet guy, not at all cocky or egotistical. He was also a smart, steady point guard, the on-court guide for the Lobos during the three years that saw the transformation of Lobo basketball from campus afterthought to community passion.
When McKay finished his sophomore year, Bob Sweeney was fired as Lobo coach. During Sweeney’s five futile years, attendance rarely topped 500 per game and I don’t think his teams won 20 games total in that span.
A crewcut junior college coach from Iowa named Bob King was brought in and set about the task of changing our ragtag Lobos from punching bags into national powers. Joey McKay played a key role in that amazing success.
That was a pivotal point in school history. Basketball at the university morphed from sport to spectacle, from extracurricular activity to big business. A program that had never come close to filling 7,200-seat Johnson Gym was just a couple of years away from deciding to build The Pit; it then routinely filled that cavernous venue with 19,000 screaming fanatics.
The 10 years from 1965 to 1975 were the glory years for UNM basketball. The teams were regularly in the AP top 20, once reaching No. 4 in the nation. And Joey McKay was part of the foundation for that empire.
So it is ironic that the challenge of reclaiming those glamorous peaks has proven too much for Joey’s son, Ritchie. At least it turned out to be unattainable during the five years he was given to accomplish that quest. Last week, UNM announced McKay would no longer lead the Lobos after this season.
I realize the entire community seems to have breathed a sigh of relief at that announcement. The fans appeared to have given up on the team before Christmas, after the promising start to the season turned to chaff with blowout losses at our two closest rivals, UTEP and the New Mexico Aggies.
Then conference season devolved into a disastrous series of heartbreaking losses (tantalizing overtime defeats interspersed with double-digit poundings) that quickly made Coach McKay’s departure inevitable. The only surprise when the ax finally fell was that it happened two full weeks before the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Every vocal Lobo fan in town seemed pleased at the dismissal.
Or rather, almost all. Not me. Not this season ticket holder. I want to go on record right now as saying I think this firing is a huge mistake. Ritchie McKay was on the verge of making the men’s program at UNM as successful as it will ever be in today’s changed world of college basketball.
When Bob King and his successor Norm Ellenberger catapulted the program to national prominence it was a different universe than it is now. That era also saw Don Haskins coach UTEP to the NCAA championship and Lou Henson take the Aggies to the Final Four against St. Bonaventure.
All three schools built lavish new basketball arenas and packed them for every home game. And all three have spent the 40 years since repeatedly failing to ever again capture lightning in a bottle, while struggling constantly. That isn’t accidental. That simply reflects the changing nature of the college game.
Today, black athletes are recruited everywhere. In the ’60s, many southern universities stubbornly fielded all-white teams. Not now. Haskins, Henson, King and other Southwestern coaches built powerhouses with players that today would be snapped up by Kentucky or Florida.
In the ’60s, junior college players were ignored by “Big Name” schools. King’s top recruits all found UNM via the junior college route … and he only competed with a few other midsize schools for their talents. Today top-notch JC players draw attention from every school … possibly excepting Duke.
In the ’60s, the NBA wouldn’t touch a player until he’d finished college. Today some are snapped up right out of high school. Others get drafted after a single year of college. A few play two or three years. Very few last four. That means the top programs are vacuuming up dozens more players in that span than they used to … and the remainders are what UNM, UTEP and NMSU fight over.
Those three seismic shifts in the college game that no amount of Maloof family money or recruiting shortcuts or spiffed-up arena architecture can compensate for mean that a Ritchie McKay who builds a program slowly, honestly and solidly will always leave hopelessly unrealistic Lobo fans feeling unsatisfied.
This won’t keep the Lobo Club from pressuring UNM to hire some iconic, over-paid, nationally recognized Big Name Genius as his replacement.
But it won’t work. It can’t. We’re too small a market and produce too few Division One players in New Mexico. Big Name Genius might give it a shot for a while; fill The Pit for a few games; possibly win a Conference Championship or earn an NCAA bid.
Then attendance will lag (it has everywhere in the region); the fans will grumble and, at last (five seasons hence; mark it down), the Genius will depart for some other more hospitable clime.
I’m sorry, Coach McKay. You can leave feeling proud of your work, your program and your team. So should we. If we aren’t, it’s a sad commentary on us, not you.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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