Stevens: Ellenberger, Colson find good times, bad times, as Lobos' coach
June 13, 2013
A History of Men's Basketball in The Pit: The keys to The Pit have been turned over to Craig Neal, who enters his first season as UNM's head coach in 2013-14. GoLobos.com will look back on the previous eras of Pit basketball in a five-part series: 1- 1966-1972; 2- 1972-1988; 3- 1988-1999; 4- 1999-2007; 5- 2007-2013.
Today: 1972-1988: Saturday: 1988-1999
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The Pit was a sparking jewel of potential, but like a Las Vegas or Broadway stage, it needed something and someone special. It needed a show stopper.
It needed a team and a coach that The Pit rowdies could latch onto and form dreams that might actually become reality in this sunken arena that brewed a powerful and protective cauldron of love for Lobos.
The Lobos found their man and their coach in "Stormin" Norm Ellenberger, who bubbled with energy and passion for the game and for his Lobos. Ellenberger also had a style that Lobo fans seemed to embrace maybe as a sign of the times or maybe simply because "Stormin' Norman" was such a contrast to the buttoned-down, crew-cut wearing Bob King.
Ellenberger was modern, hip, with it, young, flashy, vital and often controversial in his dress and manners. He wore his collars open and deep to show off his turquoise or gold chains. His hair flowed over his ears. He sported the single-bar moustache, tight pants, deep tan, and leather coats.
He looked more like a Las Vegas lounge act than the coach who would lead the Lobos to the promised land of NCAA ball.
The denizens of The Pit might have had a few doubts about the style of the man, but they loved what he threw out on the court. King's Lobos were more methodical. They often controlled tempo with defense and a winning score in the 50s and 60s was just fine for King.
Ellenberger was run-and-gun. Ellenberger was full-court defense and go, go, go. "I guarantee fans we'll put on a show," Ellenberger said before the 1972-73 season, his first season as King's replacement.
Ellenberger talked the talk and his Lobos did the walking - and some running. King produced two 20-game win seasons in his ten years in Johnson Gym and The Pit. Ellenberger, rolling off King's foundation, threw out 20-game win seasons in his first two seasons in The Pit.
In 1972-73, UNM went 21-6 and finished second in the Western Athletic Conference race, a game behind Arizona State. Ellenberger's Lobos won 12 of their final 13 games and UNM returned to the national rankings for the first time in three seasons. That team went to New York City and lost in the National Invitation Tournament 65-63 to Virginia Tech.
The next season the Lobos took a step up by winning the WAC title at 10-4 and finishing 22-7. UNM returned to the NCAA wars winning a first-round game over Idaho State (73-65) and losing 64-61 to San Francisco, which led to a consolation win over Dayton (66-61).
If you notice, those scores weren't exactly reflective of the type of teams Ellenberger wanted to throw out in The Pit. He recognized the value of his home gym and the need to use the Pit's energy to fuel his Lobos' attack. Ellenberger wanted to press and run while not abandoning the fundamental principles of the game.
He also liked what he saw in Las Vegas where a coach named Tark "The Shark" Tarkanian had electrified a city with his UNLV `Runnin' Rebels. Ellenberger was coming off a hiccup season in 1974-75 of 13-13 and 4-10 (WAC). He wanted to change the face of Lobo basketball. So, he did.
The athleticism of the Lobos took a jump up. Ellenberger went the junior college route for some quick fixes and those tactics earned New Mexico the nickname "Transfer Tech." The program was ripe with two-year players. The Lobo fans didn't mind much. They came to see exciting, winning basketball. They got it.
The Lobos of 1975-76 played at a quicker pace behind a starting lineup of Larry Gray, George Berry, Rick Williams, Dale Slaughter and Mike Patterson. They ran to a 16-11 overall mark and went 8-6 in the WAC.
It also was a stormy season for "Stormin Norman." There was a mutiny within the Lobo ranks and on March 1, 1976, six of the black players on the squad quit and said they would not return to UNM if Ellenberger remained as the head man.
That boycott produced one of the more memorable wins in Lobo history. The Don Haskins Miners came to The Pit on March 6 looking to roll a UNM team with a depleted roster. UNM had retained one starter and took to The Pit floor with a starting lineup that combined for a 13.8 scoring average. The Miners were expected to mop up the floor with Lobos. It didn't happen.
The Lobo fell behind by 12 points early, rallied to a 56-49 lead with 3:56 to play and held on for a 59-58 win. The Pit went nuts. Steve Davis and Dan Davis (not related) combined to score 42 points. Earlier that season, UNM played in front of 19,452 in an 80-73 loss to UNLV.
Ellenberger lost some talent off his 1975-76 team, but went back on the JC trail and brought in two of the better Lobos ever: Michael Cooper and Marvin Johnson. This team was raw and at times undisciplined on defense and shot selection, but it was athletic and it could score. The Lobos came out of the gates in 1975-76 to score 121 points and hit 103 in a loss at New Mexico State. These Lobos scored 90 points or more 12 times and ran to a 19-11 mark.
They got better. In 1977-78, the Lobos scored 90 points or more 18 times in their first 21 games and posted a 19-2 mark. They went over 100 points 11 times. The Pit was memorized by this team and its potential especially with The Pit being a host site for teams looking to advance to the NCAA Final Four.
The Lobos ended the regular season at 24-4, went 13-1 in the WAC and ran past No. 9 UNLV 102-98 in Vegas. The Lobos went into the NCAA first round in Tempe, Ariz., only needing a win over no-name Cal State Fullerton to advance to the West Regional in The Pit.
The Lobos were shocked 90-85 by Fullerton and lost The Pit. Arkansas narrowly beat Fullerton in the regional finals and advanced to the Final Four.
The Lobos of 1978-79 did not have Cooper or Johnson (who scored 50 Pit points on March 2, 1978 vs. Colorado State), went 19-10 and fell back into the NIT. Ellenberger got a raise of $2,300 in July of 1979 to form a base salary of $37,300. The Lobo community was excited about the run-and-gun talent that Ellenberger had stockpiled for 1978-79. The team was loaded.
The season and the expectations crumbled when the FBI stormed into The Pit on Nov. 28, 1979 in the first phase of a transcript-rigging scandal known as "Lobogate." It fell apart quickly for Ellenberger. He was fired on Dec. 17 and what remained of the UNM roster was handed over to an assistant, Charlie Harrison. UNM did a quick search and pulled Gary Colson out of semi-retirement, but Harrison did the on-court coaching.
Harrison did a masterful job weaving a patterned offense behind a smooth, left-handed gunner, Kenny Page, who averaged 28 points that season. UNM, severely challenged in depth and inside strength, had to use several walk-ons to get through the season and stumbled to a 6-22 overall mark and 3-11 in league play.
The program was then turned over to Colson, who went 11-15, 14-14 and 14-15 in his attempt to pull this once-proud program out of the ashes of Lobogate. Colson tried to rebuild the right way. He preferred to bring in freshmen and there was a greater emphasis on student-athletes. The building process was slow, but there was a steady rise in the talent level.
In 1983-84, Colson's Lobos rode a soft schedule to 24 wins and pushed into postseason play with an invite to the NIT. UNM turned that season into two more NIT trips with a 19-13 mark in 1984-85 and a 17-14 record in 1985-86.
The Lobos then used the talent of Hunter Greene, Kelvin Scarborough, Charlie Thomas, Rob Loeffel and Rob Robbins to help UNM post seasons of 25-10 (1986-87) and 22-14 (1987-88). In January of 1988, the Lobos upset Lute Olson's undefeated and No. 1 ranked Arizona 61-59 in The Pit. For some, this is still UNM's greatest ever Pit win.
It appeared that Colson's program had turned the corner. He convinced a 7-foot-2 giant from Australia, Luc Longley, to come to Albuquerque and Albuquerque High's Willie Banks had decided to stay in Albuquerque. The Lobos of 1988-89 were loaded and it was expected to be Colson's best team.
He never got to coach it.
You have to give Colson great credit for bringing the UNM program back to its feet, but he was not allowed to turn the corner with his program. Colson had gone to the NIT five consecutive times and even though he had averaged 21.4 wins over that span, UNM did not want to continue under his leadership. Colson had not won a WAC title. The Lobo fans wanted more. They wanted the NCAA.
Colson was fired (by an athletics director who was later fired) and UNM began a search for a coach who could go beyond the NIT. The Lobos got a tease from Indiana's Bobby Knight, who was wading through some stormy times back in Indiana. Knight visited UNM, but turned down the job.
However, Knight did suggest UNM should take a look at a former Knight assistant, who was winning some games over at Southern Methodist in Dallas.
The Dave Bliss era was about to begin.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.