ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s the end of an era for women’s basketball at the University of New Mexico.
Head coach Don Flanagan, the most successful coach in the program’s history, officially called it quits Tuesday during a news conference at The Pit, the university’s storied basketball arena.
Flanagan, who during the news conference referred to notes he had jotted down on a folded yellow piece of paper, thanked the players he had coached over the past 16 seasons at New Mexico for creating a positive image for women’s basketball. Then came the appreciation for the fans and recognition for the university for allowing him to coach the Lobos as long as he did.
“This was kind of tough,” he said of the decision, mentioning all the connections he has made during his long career. “It’s been emotional, but that ends. The emotions will end and everybody needs to move on anyway. It’s one of those things, we’re all going to retire.”
Flanagan’s retirement just comes one year too early.
He acknowledged Tuesday that he came back from spring break ready to work hard. He thought his team had some depth and would be a threat in the Mountain West Conference after some work in the offseason. Then one freshman told him she planned to leave the program, then another and another. In all, five wanted to leave. After being unable to persuade them otherwise, he decided that retirin g would be the best move for the program.
The 67-year-old Flanagan said it would not have been fair to recruit so many new players with just one year left on his contract.
New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs tried to dampen any speculation about Flanagan’s retirement, saying the coach’s decision was his own and there was never any pressure from the university.
Krebs said Flanagan’s successes throughout his coaching career have been “staggering.” It was Flanagan who put New Mexico on the map when it comes to women’s basketball, he said.
Flanagan rebuilt the women’s program, starting in 1995 with a team that had won only 14 games in the previous four seasons. In his first season, the Lobos won 14 games and went on to the Western Athletic Conference title game.
Flanagan finished with a 340-168 record. He also led the Lobos to the NCAA tournament eight times, including one trip to the round of 16. The Lobos earned six conference tournament titles under Flanagan.
“The hiring of Don Flanagan to be the head women’s basketball coach at UNM was an incredible hire,” Krebs said. Because of “his efforts, the efforts of his staff and his student athletes, in my opinion this is one of the most desirable women’s (coaching) jobs in the country.”
The university is already looking for Flanagan’s successor. Krebs said he doesn’t expect the task to be difficult given that New Mexico has top-notch facilities already in place, including the newly renovated Pit and support from the community. In the meantime, associate head coach Yvonne Sanchez will run the program.
Flanagan’s last day will be at the end of April. He said this will give New Mexico time to recruit the players needed for next season.
The departure of the five freshmen had much to do with playing time, Flanagan said. More pressure was put on them this year because early injuries hampered other players.
Still, the coach said the sophomores and seniors who remain on the team are committed to rebounding next year. The young Lobos finished 13-18 overall this year and missed out on any postseason play, marking one of only two losing seasons for the Lobos during Flanagan’s tenure.
So what’s in store now for the man who has spent the last four decades coaching women’s basketball?
He drew laughs from the crowd when he joked that he would be going into politics. Other than spending more time with his family, he offered few specifics.
“I’m a young guy and I have a lot of things I want to do in my life,” he said.
His wife, Wahleah, said she’s ecstatic about having her husband around more.
“We can finally go to cookouts and have a normal life. I’m blessed to have him,” she said.