The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team has itself a public relations problem.
Actually, “problem” is too kind.
What’s there is buried under a huge mess sitting on a foundation of bad ideas and locked in an echo chamber of “What exactly is your plan?” complaints.
After a disastrous season spent on the road due to pandemic health restrictions at home, the Lobos are set to play their first game in the state’s most famous building Nov. 5 against New Mexico Highlands. It’s the first of 19 games at home, snapping a 614-day span without a single Lobo fan in the stands to cheer on the cherry and silver.
With attendance on a steady decline the last half decade and a pandemic that kept fans at bay for nearly two calendar years — not to mention the firing of coach Paul Weir and just five players back from last year’s 14-man roster — it goes to figure that UNM would be willing to do anything to create buzz about the Lobos.
The school started off on a high note, bringing in coach Richard Pitino in the spring with the splash hire and big name that the program needed. Twice in the previous three seasons, the Lobos had averaged fewer than 11,000 fans at home games, and the new coach vowed to get those numbers back up by making the experience more exciting for fans.
That sound you hear is crickets chirping away behind locked doors.
We’d like to introduce you to the Lobos — heck, we’d even like to introduce you to the crickets — but everyone appears to be off-limits.
Just once since June has the school invited the media into the team’s facility to view practice. You remember the media, don’t you? It’s a free publicity machine that tells stories, writes features, airs interviews and carries the message of the coach and personalities of the players to the masses, the people who buy tickets, wear the school colors and stand in line for concessions.
When Friday’s one and only practice started, imagine the scene.
One of the returning players wasn’t there for health reasons. Another had been suspended. The other three, Javonte Johnson, Jeremiah Francis and Emmanuel Kuac, as well as two walk-ons and assistant coach Dan McHale, were the only familiar faces of the 14 players, seven members of the coaching staff and everyone on the managerial squad. Literally everyone else, save for Pitino, needed a nametag.
During practice, a UNM official asked media members to not speak to one another because doing so was a distraction to the team. That’s not a joke.
He was referring to the basketball guys who play in 15,000-seat arenas often televised on national TV, games that usually have stuff like screaming fans, cheerleaders in sequined outfits, little kids shaking pompoms and public address systems so loud they drown out the person next to you.
The question, then, is this: Is this the 18th green on Sunday at Augusta? Centre Court at Wimbledon?
Is silence the key to the team’s concentration? If so, good luck with that.
Is keeping the team locked in the top-secret dungeon really the way to go? If the school wants, as Pitino has said repeatedly since he was hired, to return The Pit to its past glory, then why put zip ties over the shroud of isolation you’ve created?
At some point, common sense needs to take over and the doors need to open to fans, to the media, to anyone wanting to learn the players’ names and feel good about their knowledge of the guys they love to watch.
If the goal is to bring the fans back, then do the bare minimum and let the stories pour forth — the stories your closely controlled Instagram account can’t manage, that is.