Call this story The Pit and the Penance. The tale of how the New Mexico basketball program, once the most scandal-ridden and punished in college athletics, has risen to once again bring national attention to this nearly mile-high city on the banks of the Rio Grande.
The Lobos are back among the elite in college basketball. Back where they were before Lobogate. Before grand juries. Before trials. Before the conviction of their former coach.
But although thoughts of punishment they have received may be fading in the euphoria of the moment, the stigma is not so easily erased.
Memories are long when events are recorded for posterity on tapes from a FBI wiretap.
More than eight years have passed since New Mexico was rocked by what was then the biggest college basketball scandal since the point-shaving incidents of the 1950s, but only this week did the program achieve that most tangible sign of recovery--a top 20 ranking.
The Lobos, who play San Diego State at 7:35 tonight in a Western Athletic Conference game at the San Diego Sports Arena, are 18th in the Associated Press poll. That is their first national ranking since they placed fourth in the final 1978 poll.
To get to 18th, New Mexico (14-3) not only had to beat No. 1 Arizona, 61-59, two Saturdays ago, it had to defeat then-No. 5 Wyoming, 85-72, last Saturday. Nothing these past eight years have been easy.
“When I first came here, I was dumb enough to think I could turn it around in a short period of time,” said Gary Colson, a former Pepperdine coach who took over at New Mexico in the wake of the scandal.
Instead, it took years. There were three struggling seasons while the team was on National Collegiate Athletic Assn. probation, followed by 85 victories in four seasons with only four trips to the National Invitation Tournament to show as reward.
The events of the past few weeks, however, have begun to take some of the sting out of those troubled years and return the city to the frenzied excitement level of years past.
The Lobos have won 10 in a row for the first time in 10 seasons. The crowd in the University Arena, more commonly known as “the Pit” because it was built in a 56-foot hole in the ground, has been at its rockin’ best.
“I’d like to have a contest on decibels,” Colson said. “We’d win going away. You actually come out of there with headaches. The sound level is such, I’m sure an ear doctor would recommend you not go to Lobo games.”
They keep coming anyway. The Pit was filled to its standing-room-only capacity of 18,100 for both Arizona and Wyoming. Scalping was profitable.
Maybe this is the season New Mexico stops paying for Lobogate.
“I’ve heard some of the fans say they’ve been waiting a long time to get some respect again,” said Charlie Thomas, New Mexico junior forward. “They figure this is the year we finally get to go someplace.”
To some it might seem unfair that the long-held hopes of redemption and renewed recognition have been placed in the hands of players such as Thomas.
Thomas was 13 years old, a junior high school student living in Maryland, when Lobogate broke. His freshman teammates were 10 and 11 at the time. Few have memories of the incident.
“Before I came here on my recruiting visit, I knew nothing about New Mexico,” said Rob Loeffel, a junior center from Banning High School in Riverside County. “I had never heard of the Pit. I had no idea about Lobogate.”
Only Stan Whisenant, a senior reserve guard, has any vivid recollections of the Lobogate years. Whisenant’s father, John, was an assistant under Coach Norm Ellenberger. He left the season before the scandal broke and subsequently was acquitted of state charges in the case.
“I remember sitting in on the trials,” Whisenant said. “I remember going to practices. All of that seems so long ago.”
But as the Lobos learned from questions they encountered when they went to New York for the semifinals of the Big Apple NIT in November, the scandal is all many have known about Lobo basketball since 1979.
“The last thing they heard about New Mexico in New York was the scandal,” Colson said. “But really, it’s dead.”
Chasing the ghosts away has not been that easy.
Larry Hubbard, one of seven players declared ineligible in the scandal, showed up at the Pit five seasons later--playing for Morgan State. He was a junior when he left New Mexico. He was a freshman when he returned. The discrepancy was uncovered; the coach, who also served as athletic director, was reassigned, and Hubbard was declared ineligible--again.
Lavon McDonald, who left as New Mexico’s athletic director just before the scandal broke, was back in the news last month. He and his son, Thomas, pleaded not guilty to 33 counts of fraud, securities fraud and related crimes in connection with a family-owned drilling company.
And Ellenberger, who was convicted in 1981 of 21 state counts of fraud and filing false public vouchers in connection with the scandal, never has completely left Albuquerque. He still owns a home in the city, has kept his basketball season tickets and returns at least once a season as a volunteer assistant coach with Texas El Paso, a member of the WAC.
Until he took the job at UTEP last season, Ellenberger, who received one year of unsupervised probation for his crimes, frequently would attend Lobo games and sit in the second row, not far from the New Mexico bench.
His presence, at times, has been unnerving to Colson. Although Colson said he remains friendly with Ellenberger, he finds himself having to live up to Ellenberger’s .684 winning percentage (196-134) and two conference titles in seven seasons, regardless of the improper recruiting methods that might have contributed to such success. The violations included altered transcripts and payments to athletes.
“I’m sure Norm still has support,” said Colson, whose winning percentage in eight seasons at New Mexico is .592 (138-95). “If I left today, we’d have a contingent looking for Norm to come back.”
Maybe that was one reason that when Ellenberger returned with UTEP for the first time last season, Colson took special satisfaction in beating the Miners, 75-69.
“The best part was I got two birds with one stone in that game,” Colson said.
For someone who has been coaching in the shadow of Ellenberger’s success, the victory was a measure of vindication for Colson, just as this season’s fast start has been. The Lobos’ 14-3 start (2-0 in the WAC) is their best since the 1977-78 team began 15-2 on the way to a 24-4 record and the school’s last NCAA tournament berth.
That team, of course, was coached by Ellenberger.
“No question, a lot of people still support Ellenberger,” said John Bridgers, the former New Mexico athletic director who hired Colson. “A lot of people feel he was done a great injustice.
“Gary never really has gotten the full support from the community. A lot of people are down on him. Today, after these wins, you might get a majority (in favor of him). The next game, if he loses, it might be 50-50.”
The criticism of Colson had been so fierce that because of the adverse crowd reaction the public address announcer frequently would not announce his name before home games. When his name has been announced on the heels of a big victory, as it was before the Wyoming game, the response has been muted.
Colson’s problems have not been restricted to fans. He alienated some members of the university board of regents last spring when he took a contract dispute with the new athletic director, John Koenig, directly to Gov. Garrey Carruthers. The dispute was settled when Colson agreed to accept the elimination of an automatic rollover provision in his contract in return for a year extension, keeping the contract at three years.
Such simmering unhappiness, and his wife’s one-time interest in returning to the West Coast, has given Colson pause to consider seeking other coaching positions.
“I got involved with four or five positions in the past,” he said. “But every time I’d come back, my wife would say, ‘This is a better job here.’ ”
Colson realizes he never quite has captured the imagination of the New Mexico fans, who loved the court-side theatrics of the flamboyantly dressed Ellenberger. Colson is a much more subdued sort.
In his office this week, Colson wore a blue sweatsuit and talked quietly and calmly of his experiences at New Mexico.
On the court, Colson prefers to choose his wardrobe from a few mostly conservative sport coats. He said he has restrained his on-the-court behavior since he had a heart attack while coaching at Pepperdine.
“I used to be a raving maniac,” said Colson, 53. “But after I had a heart attack, I saw that really wasn’t helping my team. When I was in L.A., I studied John Wooden. He was very calm, cool and collected. I sort of adapted that style. People here want me to rave and romp. But I can control my thoughts a lot more if I’m not raving and romping and stomping. I know (the crowd) liked Norm doing that.”
Ellenberger was widely revered in the city until he was fired early in the 1979-80 season, shortly after the scandal was revealed when the FBI entered The Pit to interview him.
An assistant, Charlie Harrison, was appointed interim coach for the rest of the season while Bridgers searched for a replacement.
Colson had left Pepperdine after a 22-10 season in 1978-79 because of his heart trouble and was working as a consultant with a shoe company when Bridgers called. Colson missed coaching and wanted to return, especially to a high-powered program such as New Mexico’s.
He quickly learned such programs had their attractions and their problems.
At Pepperdine, he toiled relatively anonymously in the shadow of the great UCLA teams.
“You could hide in Malibu,” Colson said. “After a game, I could go to Alice’s Restaurant there on the pier and nobody would know who you where. You could be sitting next to Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. You were a nobody.”
But at New Mexico, that all changed. Even in the leanest of the probation years, the Lobos averaged more than 16,000 at the Pit. Since it was opened in 1966, the Lobos have played to 97.3% of capacity.
“If we get beat, I don’t go to the mall for about a week,” Colson said. “I shop at the grocery store at 7 o’clock in the morning.”
But there is some fun to be gained from the notoriety of being the Lobos coach.
When they returned from a recent road trip on the same plane as a well-known actress, it was the Lobos who got all the attention.
“She saw all the TV cameras outside, and she started fixing her hair and makeup,” Colson said. “She gets off the plane, and all the TV people go running by her to us.”
Colson laughed as he retold the story. The Lobos are riding high these days. His thoughts were different only a few years ago.
While he struggled to sell a program on probation, going 39-44 in his first three seasons, he wondered out loud if he could rebuild the Lobos without resorting to violating NCAA rules.
“That fourth year I began to do a little survey,” he said. “Just about everybody I talked to, I’d ask them if thought we could get it done without cheating. If it was possible in a town where only one or two Division I players a year come out of the state?
“What were we to do about it? Were we going to cheat to get it done? Get it cranked up again. I’m convinced you can cheat and get away with it. Nobody would know it. I even developed a plan many years ago that if I was going to cheat, this is how I would do it. I picked it up from my friends (in coaching) who are doing it all across the country. But I never did it. I couldn’t. My morals, my family taught me differently. I would have to live with my pace of getting there.”
But despite the obstacles of probation, patience was not an abundant commodity in Albuquerque.
In 1983-84, their first season off probation, the Lobos opened the season in the Great Alaska Shootout with losses to Santa Clara and Alaska Anchorage, a Division II school.
“I got on the phone and told my wife to put up the house for sale; it was all over,” Colson said. “But we then we beat USC, came back home and beat Washington and then went to UCLA and beat them.
“I’m a slow builder. I guess if I have a weakness, that is it.”
New Mexico went on to finish 24-11 and go to the NIT. Three more winning seasons followed, but it has taken Colson until now to bring the Lobos back to the level of national prominence they occupied before the scandal. He has done so with a team that starts only one senior--Hunter Greene, a senior forward from Van Nuys High School who leads the team in scoring at 19.1 points.
Thomas, who averages 17.5 points and 8.1 rebounds, is a junior transfer from Wake Forest. Loeffel, who is 7-feet tall, can combine with freshman Luc Longley to give the Lobos a twin-tower look. Point guard Darrell McGee is a sophomore and the off-guard, Rob Robbins, is a redshirt freshman.
The Lobos started the season as a full-court pressing, up-tempo offensive team, but after losing twice in the Big Apple NIT to Seton Hall and Iowa State and losing at Washington in the seventh game, Colson backed off the press. The Lobos have not lost since.
“I was wearing them out with the press,” Colson said. “The old coach outfoxed himself.”
Greene says it is Colson’s manner that has helped develop the team.
“He relates to the players because he is fair,” Greene said. “We are a team, but he treats as individuals, and that is important.”
Greene and his teammates agree that Colson also has done his best to improve the image of the program. Colson said he has graduated 21 of 24 players he has recruited since coming to New Mexico and that the team had an overall grade point average of 2.86 last year.
Thomas said the coaching staff’s attitude toward following NCAA rules is strict. “They’re almost paranoid,” he said. “They won’t even give you a ride.”
This does not mean there have not been occasional problems. The team ran afoul of NCAA rules last spring when the team was housed and given meal money after its first-round NIT loss in The Pit. The game was during spring break, and Colson said he thought it was acceptable to provide for the players until school restarted.
The players ended up having to return the money.
“I’m not saying we’ve been angels,” Colson said. “We don’t cheat. We might have broken a rule, and we got chastised because we did.”
Colson said that when the incident took place, administrative action was swift. The larger mistakes of Lobogate are not forgotten.
“When something like that happens, you hear people tell you, ‘We don’t want it to slip back,’ ” Colson said. “I hear that every so often. ‘We’ve got to be careful; we don’t want to let it slip back.’
“Well, as long as I’m here, we won’t let it slip back in that hole.”