STRONG SURVIVOR : Gary Colson, Ousted at New Mexico, Lands on His Feet as an Assistant at Cal

Times Staff Writer

Gary Colson was a very public figure when he coached basketball at the University of New Mexico.

"It was like being a pro coach in college. It became a joke," Colson said. "I was eating dinner with (Laker General Manager) Jerry West, at a restaurant in Albuquerque, when a fan came up and asked for my autograph and ignored Jerry."

There was no place Colson could hide.

"I went to Perth, Australia, to recruit a player," he said. "I thought that at least I could go to Australia and nobody would recognize me. The first thing off the plane in Sydney, somebody said 'Hey, Coach!' "

Although it isn't exactly what he had in mind, Colson has escaped the limelight after 8 seasons at New Mexico.

Colson, 54, ousted after last season, now is the senior assistant at California. It's a bit of a comedown for him after 29 seasons as a head coach.

"I'm the highest-paid assistant coach in America," he said. "I'm being paid by two schools. I giggle at the end of every month."

Colson settled the final 2 years of his New Mexico contract for $200,000. If he had his preference, though, he would still be picking up his check at Albuquerque.

"I love it here at Berkeley, but I'd rather be the head coach at the University of New Mexico," he said.

Colson arrived at New Mexico in 1980 after 11 years at Pepperdine and restored the Lobo basketball program after one of the worst scandals in college sports. In Albuquerque, they called it Lobogate.

The scandal, which resulted from an FBI wiretap as part of a separate gambling investigation, involved the provision of fake transcripts for junior college transfers and bogus credits for players. Coach Norm Ellenberger was convicted on 21 counts of providing false public vouchers.

After a 3-year National Collegiate Athletic Assn. probation ended in 1983, New Mexico averaged 21 wins over the next 5 years. The Lobos qualified for the National Invitation Tournament each of those years.

"It was like a war zone after a big battle," Colson said. "The trust level was zero. I didn't know what I was getting into. But I took the job because of John Bridgers (who was hired as athletic director to clean up the program)."

"I was sitting on my boat reading about the scandal in the L.A. Times. And I looked at the back page and saw that they had hired John Bridgers, whom I had known for a long time. I said that the phone would ring within an hour, and 30 minutes later the phone rang, and it was John. He said that he wasn't going to interview anybody else because he wanted me to take the job."

But Bridgers quit in 1987 and Colson clashed with his new boss, John Koenig. Eventually, Colson went over Koenig's head when he asked New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers to settle a contract dispute.

Colson won the battle--Carruthers gave him a 3-year contract--but he apparently lost the war.

New Mexico, 22-14 last season, defeated 3 teams ranked in the top 20--Arizona when the Wildcats were No. 1, fifth-ranked Wyoming and Brigham Young. The Lobos were ranked 18th after a 14-3 start, but a late-season slump cost them an NCAA tournament berth, and that probably cost Colson his job.

Koenig asked Colson to resign at the end of the season.

Colson broke down and cried while reading his letter of resignation at a press conference.

"I thought (Koenig) was going to give me a raise when he called me in," Colson said. "But he told me that he didn't think I could take the program where they wanted to go. Honestly, I don't think I could have saved my job even if we had made the NCAA playoffs.

"I think it sends a bad message to other coaches. The ironic thing is that Ellenberger did it all wrong and they had a national scandal, probably one of the worst, and he got fired. And we did it right. We had 26 of 30 kids who graduated, we averaged 21 wins and had no trouble with the NCAA, and we got fired. So I don't know what the signal is."

Ironically, Koenig himself was fired July 22 for alleged misuse of school travel funds and is under state investigation.

"I still can't believe it," Colson said. "I guess I'm like the guy who's standing on the street corner and gets shot in a drive-by shooting. The school president told me that things would be different if he knew then what he knows now.

"But your momma and my momma said life wasn't going to be fair. I've always tried to stay ahead of the posse, but they finally caught up to me."

A New Mexico spokesman said Colson was asked to resign because of philosophical differences. Gerald May, the university president, refused an interview request.

Colson's firing stunned Bridgers, his former boss now working in business in Albuquerque.

"He did a great job here," Bridgers said. "I was surprised and disappointed. I think it was most undeserving. He took New Mexico from zero to the top. I thought he did an outstanding job. He had the right perspective."

Although Colson's teams won, Bridgers said that Colson never captured the hearts and minds of Lobo fans as had the flamboyant Ellenberger.

"Ellenberger had a strong following here," Bridgers said. "There were a lot of people who didn't want to see (Colson) succeed. They misled the regents and the president. He operated an honest program that was above board. But some people had a blind prejudice against him."

Said David Duggin, who played at New Mexico from 1979-81: "It was a big surprise when Gary got fired. When I heard about it, I was thinking, 'Gosh, he must have done something way out of line.'

"I felt like they were saying, 'Do it right, but if you don't win fast enough and get invited to the NCAAs, it's over.' It was wrong for the university to do what they did."

Colson's forced resignation startled the basketball world.

"Gary got a bum deal," George Raveling of USC said. "It just makes a mockery out of college athletics. His players were graduating, he was winning and he wasn't cheating. The signal that they sent out was that they say these things are really important but they really aren't.

"The bottom line among his peers is that we feel he got fired because he didn't get into the NCAA playoffs and everybody's looking for that paycheck (from the NCAA tournament) to balance their budgets."

Said UCLA Coach Jim Harrick, who succeeded Colson at Pepperdine: "I was very, very, very surprised. (Colson) won 48 games over the last 3 years and then a new athletic director came in and decided he doesn't like him and he's gone. It's a really unfortunate situation. The guy won a lot of ballgames down there. He went to the NIT 5 years in a row."

Said West, a longtime friend of Colson: "Of all the things I've ever heard, I've never heard anything like that. It makes no sense to me why it happened. New Mexico was in trouble when Gary came. He took a very, very difficult situation and turned it into a good situation."

His world shattered, Colson went into seclusion on his boat, a 40-foot cabin cruiser docked at Marina del Rey, while he pondered his future.

He eventually returned to Albuquerque, where he had just built a house. He also owned a restaurant and his wife had an aerobics studio there.

"I played golf for 46 straight days," Colson said. "It was something I had always wanted to do. Golf was enjoyable, but my hands were getting tired."

But Colson clearly missed coaching.

"The first day of school (at New Mexico), I woke up and it was a beautiful morning in Albuquerque and I had nowhere to go. It was a nauseous feeling in my stomach. It was the first time in 30 years that I wasn't coaching."

He interviewed for the head coaching job at Texas, which hired Tom Penders, and he also received offers from the Milwaukee Bucks, UCLA and USC to scout or serve as an assistant.

Cal, however, gave Colson a fresh start.

Lou Campanelli, Cal's coach, hired Colson in September after two assistants resigned unexpectedly.

"Lou saved me," Colson said. "I'll always be in debt to him. Not too many head coaches would do what he's done and hire another head coach. Those others schools wanted me, but Lou needed me."

Colson and Campanelli have a combined total of 777 victories, more than any other college staff. Colson, the 11th-winningest coach in college basketball, has a 487-312 mark, and after Monday night's victory against U.S. International, Campanelli has a 290-165 mark in 16 seasons.

Said Dave Maggard, Cal's athletic director: "I think any program would be happy to have Gary Colson. Lou made a nice selection. We're fortunate to get a guy like Gary."

There are no apparent conflicts between Colson and Campanelli.

"As I told Gary when I hired him, 'I don't want you to come work for me, I want you to work with me,' " Campanelli said. "Gary and I aren't on an ego trip. We've been around a long time, and we can both coach the game of basketball. We've had our share of success, and I think that's why Gary came. He felt secure with me and I felt secure with him."

Said Leonard Taylor, Cal's star forward: "Having Gary around is like having another head coach. I don't know too many schools that have two head coaches."

Wanda Colson thinks the new job has done wonders for her husband's confidence.

"Gary was very hard to live with (after he resigned)," she said. "Once this came up, he was a completely different man. I couldn't believe the change in him. He would have gone crazy if he didn't have basketball."

Colson and Campanelli complement one another. Colson, mellowed after surviving a heart attack at Pepperdine and his tenure at New Mexico, is cooler than the explosive Campanelli, who got 7 technical fouls last season.

"My philosophy is to live for the moment," Colson said. "The job is the same, but the stress is much less."

Said forward Matt Beeuwsaert, who has had his share of quarrels with Campanelli: "He's been good for us, not only from a coaching standpoint, but from a relationship standpoint. I think he's a good complement to Lou. Lou's more intense and Colson's calmer, and it helps the team."

Colson has assumed added responsibility since Campanelli's wife, Dawn, suffered a crushed pelvis in an auto accident after attending Cal's first practice at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 15.

Dawn Campanelli was on her way home in a car driven by her son, Kyle, a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College, when a driver allegedly ran a red light and rammed his pickup truck into the passenger side of their car. Kyle walked away from the accident without a scratch, but his mother had to be cut out of the wreckage after the car door caved in on her.

Doctors put 30 screws and 4 braces on her pelvis during an 8-hour operation at the UC Davis Medical Center.

The crash numbed Campanelli.

"I followed them up the hill, behind them like 2 or 3 minutes," Campanelli said. "I came up in my car right after the crash occurred. I came to the intersection and, bang, it was there.

"I was in shock. The guy that hit her stopped and got out of the pickup truck and walked up to me, and I had no anger at the time. I just told the guy to go over to his truck and don't move until the police come. A week later I wished I had hit him, because the anger came out after I saw the pain and what my wife was going to have to go through."

Colson ran the team while Campanelli stayed at the hospital with his wife. Campanelli had so much confidence in Colson, in fact, that he considered remaining in the Bay Area when Cal opened its season in the Great Alaska Shootout last month. However, Campanelli made the trip at the last minute.

Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, a longtime friend of Campanelli, called Dawn four times during the World Series while she was hospitalized in Oakland.

"I can't tell you how much Tommy Lasorda's phone calls meant to her before and after the surgery," Campanelli said. "I asked him to call once after I told him about the accident, and he called her four times during the World Series. People don't realize that in the midst of a World Series, a friend was having a crisis and he still takes time to make a phone call. He's been a wonderful friend.

"I've had a lot of coaches call her, because coaches can motivate and keep that spirit going. (Villanova Coach) Rollie Massimino and (North Carolina State Coach) Jimmy Valvano and (Atlanta Hawks Coach) Mike Fratello have called her."

Dawn Campanelli is slowly healing.

"She finally walked from the bed to the door and back to the bed," Campanelli said. "We both feel like she's making progress. Hopefully, she'll be home by Christmas so we can have a beautiful Christmas. I'm counting on that."

Like Dawn Campanelli, Colson is a survivor.

He hopes to survive this season to become a head coach again.

"I think Gary will get another job," Harrick said. "Gary is one of the great survivors, and what you have to do in this business is survive."

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