Gary Colson has surveyed college basketball from its heights and its depths, from The Pit to the mountaintop--or at least from Malibu.
He was the coach at Pepperdine before UCLA’s Jim Harrick, and he was the coach who brought New Mexico from the rubble of scandal and NCAA probation back to the top 20.
He was the coach who did it honestly, only to be fired in 1988 at the end of a season in which the Lobos went 22-14, upsetting No. 1 Arizona before a crazed crowd in The Pit, New Mexico’s arena.
Now, after two years as an assistant at California, he is a head coach again, at Fresno State, succeeding Ron Adams, who was unable to carry on the tradition Boyd Grant built.
Colson, 56, inherited a 10-19 team steeped in the low-scoring, defensive game Boyd and Adams teach. He has the Bulldogs at 7-5, playing a running game and fresh off a victory over UC Santa Barbara before their game against UC Irvine tonight in the Bren Center.
“I’ve died and gone to heaven in Fresno,” Colson said in the soft Georgia drawl he retains. “It’s the best job I’ve had and I’ve had some good ones. We’re here in California, close to the recruiting base, we have great facilities, a great town, and a basketball coach, Gary Cunningham, for an athletic director.”
At Cal, Colson didn’t play the usual assistant’s role, that is, making suggestions that are usually ignored. Colson needed something to occupy him, working as an assistant under Lou Campanelli. Campanelli gave him the offense.
“I had to have something I could sink my teeth into,” said Colson, who was given credit for the three-guard offense that helped the Golden Bears make the NCAA tournament last season. “Those two years I spent at Cal were great. I enjoyed that, but I’d much rather call the shots. There’s more stress or whatever. . . . Being an assistant, it was cake. You went home and you felt bad when you lost and great when you won. It was nothing like a head coach who spends one hour thinking about the game, then has to think, ‘How are we going to win the next one?’ ”
After Adams resigned at Fresno before the end of the final season of his contract, Cunningham and Colson met secretly, planning Colson’s return to coaching.
“I knew I was going to be a head coach again,” Colson said. “Every person has go to know what they are, and I’m a basketball coach. Not many people know in the ninth grade what they want to do. My life has been easy that way.”
Now he has gravitated back to the hard part, to the stresses and pressures of a season that weigh heavier on the ones at the top than on their assistants.
Colson has left behind the Fresno State style for something of his own, playing the fast-paced game even though he admits that with these players, Fresno might win a few more games if they slowed it down.
“I’m in it for the long run, so I’m in it for recruiting,” Colson said. “I don’t want to get a slow-tempo reputation.”
What lies ahead?
“I don’t know about rankings,” he said. “You have no control over rankings. The thing we want is to be competitive and get to the playoffs. We can get to the playoffs. It might take us two, three years.”
Already, Fresno State has signed four players who are about 6 feet 10, adding height to a team in sore need of it.
Colson shakes his head at how it all works out, so soon after the crushing blow of his firing, a move that was widely considered unjustified.
“I wasn’t bitter. I got paid,” Colson said. “It was a deal where two or three people didn’t like what we were doing.”
John Koenig, New Mexico athletic director, asked Colson to resign at the end of the 1987-88 season. Koenig was fired later that year for alleged misuse of school funds.
“I’m human,” Colson said. “I didn’t send them a get-well card or anything. But if I hadn’t got mistreated at New Mexico, I wouldn’t have this job today, and I think this job is a better one than I had in Albuquerque.”