By: Joseph Fullbright
In the fall of 2004, a young 25-year old Canadian embarked on a 1,400-mile journey that would change his life forever.
The head coach of the Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School basketball team all the way up in Etobicoke, Toronto, had a plan: attend graduate school in the United States and obtain a teacher’s license in order to become a full-time high school teacher/coach. After writing letters and emails to over a thousand U.S. schools looking for a chance to develop his craft and become a better coach, an opportunity came up. Northwestern State University had a graduate assistant position open, and he took it. Paul Weir was moving to Natchitoches, Louisiana.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Weir. “It was a smaller school where I had a lot of responsibilities. I was mopping floors, working concession stands, and doing a lot of things that had nothing to do with the game of basketball. I was just around people [who were] doing basketball stuff while I was doing the busy work.”
The Demons went 21-12 in Weir’s lone season there under coach Mike McConathy and won the Southland Conference regular season title. It was a good first step, but the next one turned out to be the big break.
Canada was not known for its basketball pedigree at the time. It was a small circle. Whenever there was a talented local high school player, or a young coach with a lot of potential, people with ties to the nation were the only ones who knew about them. Colleges in the north showed the most interest, but not much. Weir, during his time at Don Bosco, caught the eye of an assistant coach from Iowa who was on a recruiting visit. His name was Craig Neal.
In 2005, Weir got a call from the University of Iowa. Thanks to his friendship with Neal, he was named to the basketball staff as the team’s Director of Operations. That opportunity and his position allowed him to work under and learn from one of the smartest and most successful coaches in the country, Steve Alford.
“When I got to Iowa, I shifted into a much more basketball-oriented mode. I think from there, my coaching development really grew.”
In his first season in Des Moines, the Hawkeyes went 25-9 winning the Big Ten Championship en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance. It was a winning environment, and that all started with the makeup of the coaching staff. Every coach on the staff would go on to be eventual Division I head coaches. For starters, Craig Neal was the top assistant and would go on to be the head coach at New Mexico, Tim Buckley is currently next-in-line to be head coach at Indiana University, Brian Jones is the head coach of North Dakota, and Greg Lansing is at the helm of Indiana State.
“For two years, I really learned a lot about the game from Steve [Alford] and Craig [Neal]. They’re both amazing technical coaches. I learned a lot from them basketball-wise that I still look back on to this day. I have been really fortunate have been around [their] success.”
Alford, a two-time All-American, played basketball at Indiana University in the 1980’s under arguably the greatest coach in NCAA history, Bob Knight. He used Knight’s teachings to help lead Iowa’s defense to being ranked #1 in the country during his time there. Those teachings also had a big impact on Weir.
“Developing a team culture around discipline. His knowledge comes from the best teacher ever in college basketball (Knight). It was immense. To pick up some of that stuff was tremendous to me. A lot of the defensive principles that I [use] today and part of our (NMSU’s) defensive success here [originated] from Iowa that Alford implemented.”
Not everything was pretty for Alford at Iowa. He had to replace legendary coach Tom Davis and many Hawkeye fans felt he never quite lived up to those expectations. There were also constant distractions regarding his job status, like him showing interest in vacant head coaching positions at his alma mater Indiana and Missouri. Following a mediocre 2006-2007 campaign, Alford decided to resign from Iowa to become the head coach at the University of New Mexico.
“At the end of the two years [at Iowa], Steve took the job at New Mexico and I was sill in lower-level positions there. I just felt at the time, for me and my own growth, I wanted to be a coach on the floor and recruit and scout and all those things.”
“The intent was to always just be a high school coach in Toronto. Being a college coach in the United States was never on my radar. I really just fell into it, and once I did, I pursued it with everything I had” – Paul Weir
The hope of becoming an assistant coach became a reality in 2007 when Marvin Menzies was announced as the new head coach at New Mexico State University. Weir originally met Menzies through Eric Brown, an assistant at Iowa State at the time. The two got very close being in the same state. Menzies originally offered him the assistant coaching job at NMSU, but Brown declined and chose to go to Long Beach State instead. He recommended Weir to Menzies as a potential suitor for the position.
“When Marvin [Menzies] ended up getting the job [at NMSU], I had the opportunity to become an assistant coach I went to NMSU with the long-term plan of eventually becoming a head coach.”
His hiring would prove to be a great one for New Mexico State. He, along Menzies, would lead the Aggies to seven WAC championships and five NCAA tournaments, including four straight from 2012-2015. Perhaps the biggest impact he had for the Aggies was his excellent recruiting of Canadian players.
“Growing up in Canada, I have a lot of relationships there. When I got to the United States as a Division I coach, I had that advantage of knowing so many people that were off the map. When I got here, we got some really good players that nobody had heard of.”
There have been eleven Canada-born players that Weir has brought to Las Cruces through his “Canadian Pipeline.” Most notably were Daniel Mullings, an AP All-American and WAC Player of the Year, and Sim Bhullar, a 7’5” giant who became the first Aggie in 24 years to play in the NBA. Other recognizable names include Hernst Laroche, Renaldo Dixon, and Tyrone Watson. Aside from Bhullar and current freshman Jermaine Haley, none were recruited really hard by other Division I schools.
“Those guys don’t exist in Canada anymore. It is a much bigger market now. It’s sexy to recruit in Canada now. We don’t have quite the advantage in that area anymore, but you’re still able to go in and [use] those strong relationships to be able to go get good players.”
Before the 2011-2012 season, Menzies appointed Weir as the team’s Associate Head Coach, which basically meant that he was next-in-line for the head coaching position. Aggie fans began to recognize how vital Weir was to the program not only thanks to his recruiting skills, but his strong defensive background carried over from Iowa. The Aggies are coming of back-to-back years of finishing in the top-25 nationally in scoring defense, which included allowing only just 63.1 points per game last season, good for 10th in the nation. Most began to envision him as Menzies’ eventual successor.
Due to the Aggies’ success, many bigger schools were expressing interest in Menzies’ services. Every offseason, teams like Tulsa, Colorado State, and Arizona State were rumored to be potential suitors. But every time one of those schools was interested, they would eventually hire somebody else. That would change in the 2016 offseason.
The coaching carousel started with UNLV’s firing of head coach Dave Rice. Like most head coaching vacancies, Menzies was definitely viewed as a possible replacement. After weeks of speculation and interviews, he and Chris Beard, then-head coach of Arkansas-Little Rock, who was coming off an upset of fifth-seeded Purdue in the NCAA Tournament, were deemed as the two final candidates for the job. They decided to go with Beard, who agreed in principle to become UNLV’s next coach.
All was quiet for the next few weeks- until Tubby Smith decided to leave Texas Tech for Memphis. Having been an assistant coach for a decade at Texas Tech, Beard knew where his heart was and decided to spurn Las Vegas for Lubbock and became the head coach of the Red Raiders. This left the UNLV job open again, which garnered Menzies attention. Having been one of the final initial candidates for the job, he immediately put his name back into consideration. Two days after Beard signed with Texas Tech, Menzies accepted the offer to become the next coach of the Runnin’ Rebels.
It seemed like a forgone conclusion as to who the next head coach of the Aggies was going to be. Weir was the obvious choice. He had spent the past nine seasons on Menzies’ staff and had massive support from fans and players. But, NMSU Athletic Director Mario Moccia wanted to exhaust and review all options, and began a nationwide search for other possibilities. Besides Weir, the candidates included Arizona associate head coach Joe Pasternack, Baylor assistant Jerome Tang, and even former Aggie head coach and fan-favorite, Reggie Theus, who was at Cal-State Northridge. Many were unhappy with Moccia even considering anybody but Weir for the job.
“There were a few days there where I didn’t know was going to happen. But I do think at the end of the whole experience, you feel a little better knowing that there was a complete [hiring] process and you did go up against other people and genuinely were the best guy for the job.”
On April 26, 2016, Paul Weir was officially named as the 25th head coach in New Mexico State men’s basketball history. He became the third-ever Canadian to be the head coach of a Division I school. Everything had finally paid off for Weir, who learned a lot in his nine seasons with the Aggies. It should be as comfortable as a transition as any head-coaching turnover ever.
“I think gaining experience has been really important for me. Marvin was amazing at giving me a lot of latitude in trying things- being recruiting, coaching, and teaching. I like to believe that I am relatively prepared for being a first year head coach [thanks to] him. Especially in defense and recruiting, those were two areas where I had a lot of independence over.”
New Mexico has become home for Weir, who recently married his wife, Alma, a Las Cruces native, this fall. The two have a son, Theodore, who is now one-and-a-half years old.
“At the end of the day, I have really grown up in Las Cruces. I’ve gone through a lot of life changes here and matured in a lot of ways. Now, having a family, it’s changed my perspective on things.”
Aggie fans should feel lucky to have Weir as their head coach. He was a final candidate for the Texas-Rio Grande Valley head coaching job this past offseason. Many fans, including boosters and donors, were surprised that Weir did not go be an assistant under former mentor Steve Alford when he was named head coach at UCLA in 2013. It is unconfirmed if he ever was actually offered the position.
“There were some other power five schools that has some assistant coaching opportunities- a couple that I got really close to taking. But, I have a lot of ties here that changed the decision for me. I have a family here now and I graduated from here. My loyalty to Las Cruces and the University now is different than it was 4-5 years ago. If those positions were available [back then], I would have looked into them. These past few years, I have really developed some roots here. This place has come to mean something to me. It would have really taken a lot for me to leave.”
One of the most important things to Weir is education. He believes that anyone becomes a better overall coach and leader when they are well rounded and educated. All of his degrees were earned from schools that he coached at. First, he earned his bachelor’s degree from York University in Canada, where he also played basketball. Following that, he earned his first master’s degree in health and human performance from Northwestern State in 2005. His second masters’ degree came in sports psychology from Iowa. His third master’s degree was in business administration from New Mexico State- where he is currently pursuing his doctorate degree in educational leadership.
“The fear of losing and the pressure to succeed has not allowed me to rest and just put my feet up. I feel as though I have not accomplished anything yet and I have a lot to prove. That’s what drives me everyday.”
Coach Weir not only has big envisions for the Aggies on the court, but also for their supporters off the court.
“I hope to bring people back to the Pan Am more than anything else. We have to be the team on the court they believe in. It was great when Reggie [Theus] was here, it was great when Neil [McCarthy] was here, and it was great when Lou [Henson] was here. At the end of the day, I want to do everything in my power to bring those days back. We are all in this together: the team, the school, the city; all of us.”
An enhanced atmosphere in the Pan Am Center is something that is important to Weir. He, along with many in the Aggie Athletic Department, recently launched “AggieArmy,” which is a new fan club dedicated to students. All it takes is $20 from a student and they will be able to pick their seat in the student section for the entire season, receive a limited edition Under Armour shirt, and free pizza before every single game. Members of AggieArmy will also be a part of exclusive events, like meet-and-greet opportunities with the team and private access to select practices and events.
“We have for to find a way to get more people [in the Pan Am] and pack the house to increase our ability to win at home. The game day environment will be driven by our students. We need to improve our attendance and that starts with the students. We want to develop a slogan or theme. We threw around a lot of ideas, but decided that ‘AggieArmy’ really [reflects] itself on what we are trying to be about as a team. [We are] trying to build a culture here of togetherness, toughness and unselfishness, and I think if the student section reflects that as well, it is beneficial for everybody.”
It is going to be an exciting new era for New Mexico State basketball. Fans should feel excited to have someone like Paul Weir in charge. He isn’t just a great coach, he is much more than that, and we should all feel very grateful.
And to think none of this would even be a thing… if not for Northwestern State University- 1,400 miles away from Toronto.
Joseph Fullbright can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org