Peace and love have returned to the University of New Mexico basketball team. Players are no longer trying to escape into the desert, and fans have stopped trying to hang Coach Norm Ellenberger by his turquoise necklace. Albuquerque is loco over the Lobos once again.
New Mexico, which leads the nation in scoring and junior-college transfers, beat Arizona and Arizona State last week before two 18,000-plus crowds at University Arena. The 103-85 and 103-92 victories kept the Lobos undefeated in the Western Athletic Conference and ran their overall record to a gaudy 19-2. Their postseason prospects are equally dazzling, because the NCAA West Regional next month will be played on their home court. "I think about it every day," says Ellenberger.
Ellenberger could have worse things on his mind. Two years ago six black players criticized his coaching strategy, made the customary charge of racial prejudice and left the team before the final game, never to return. Late last season 3,000 fans signed a petition demanding he be fired. Despite these crises, Ellenberger had respectable records of 16-11 in '75-'76 and 19-11 in '76-'77 and assembled the personnel so important to this season's success. "I'm proud of what we've done, because I was in a corner," he says. "People who were stabbing me in the back are now patting me on the back. I just smile and say, 'Thank you,' but I still remember."
Ellenberger is not easy to forget. His hair is long, his shirts are open, and his neck, wrists and fingers are adorned with gold, silver and turquoise jewelry. Though his age, which is almost a state secret in New Mexico, is 46, he looks a hip 36 and acts a swinging 26. He does not talk, he "raps." He does not enjoy the mountain scenery around Albuquerque, he "digs" it. "I can't fit in the mold that everybody expects of a coach," he says. "I can't be a hypocrite. I may stick out a little bit here, but in California I'd blend in with all the other freaks."
February 20, 1978
Despite his free-and-easy style and his investments in a racquetball court and an apartment complex, Ellenberger insists that "nothing I do detracts from my job." When the program suffered the last two seasons, he suffered with it. Only now can he joke that "I have my narrow tie and wing-tipped shoes in a box at home in case I ever need to find another job."
Ellenberger's future at New Mexico now seems secure because he and Assistant Coach John Whisenant have brought in nine junior-college players the last two years. That is a bumper crop even by the standards of the WAC, in which the ideal of recruiting four-year student-athletes has rarely been allowed to stand in the way of building a good basketball program. "I had to go to the jaycees because I needed people who could help us right away," Ellenberger says. "When you have 18,000 seats to fill every game, you can't have a rebuilding year. So we've done in a very short time what it takes most schools three or four years to do."
The New Mexico coaches have had plenty of aggravation in the process. For a long while last season it looked as if Ellenberger's imports were typical junior-college problem children on and off the court. One, Flenoil Crook, split before he ever put on a practice jersey. Two others, Michael Cooper and Jimmy Allen, went AWOL during preseason drills. A fourth, Marvin Johnson, left, came back and then refused to suit up for the first game. When the transfers finally took the court, it was every man for himself. "We needed five balls," says Johnson, the team's leading scorer the last two seasons. "We were all looking at each other cross-eyed." Cooper, the No. 2 scorer, admits, "I'd take the ball and say, 'Hey, everybody, look at me.' "
Ellenberger was dissatisfied with the team's 19-11 record, because he knew he had the talent to do better. "There was never any stability on the court," he says. "It always had to come from the coaches." Two moves set the team on the right track this season. Instead of putting the clamps on Johnson and Cooper, Ellenberger created instant leadership by naming them co-captains. And he signed up the best little man in junior-college basketball, 5'10" Russell Saunders of Pensacola, to be the playmaker New Mexico needed. From the same school came 6'5" Phil Abney to provide depth at forward.
The acquisition of Abney seemed all the more important when another of the team's free spirits, Willie Howard, left school last spring because he felt he could not play basketball and support a wife at the same time. But after much deliberation, Howard came up with a most remarkable solution: he divorced his wife. Now he is back to basketball; he and Abney split the playing time and 27 points a game at one forward spot.
Ellenberger needs this kind of depth for his free-substituting, fast-paced style of play. Eight of his former jaycees are averaging at least 16 minutes a game, six have between five and six rebounds and four are scoring in double figures. As a team, New Mexico is pouring in 101.6 points a game, easily the highest in the nation, and playing enough defense to outscore its opponents by an average of 16.4 points. The Lobos have lost only to Southern Cal and Syracuse and have set five attendance records on the road and another at home.
Depth is the main reason the Lobos are within five games of becoming the first WAC team to go unbeaten in the league's 16-year history. And with the home-court advantage in the West Regional, they also seem capable of a more significant conference accomplishment by making the NCAA's final four. Only one WAC team (Utah) has ever gone that far, although three league members (Wyoming in 1943, Utah in 1944 and UTEP in 1966) won the NCAAs before they were members of the WAC.
To get to the final four, a team needs more than depth, and New Mexico has that extra edge in the individual brilliance of Johnson and Cooper. Johnson, a 6'5" forward, leads the Lobos in scoring (23.4), rebounding (6.5) and free-throw shooting (75%), and he set a school record with 46 points against Kentucky State. But Cooper, a 6'5" guard, is considered the better all-round player. He averages 17.1 points and six rebounds and is more skilled than Johnson at the defensive end of the court. Neither was highly recruited out of high school, but each developed fast in junior college, Johnson at Howard College in Big Spring, Texas and Cooper at Pasadena City College in California.
Johnson took a winding route from his hometown of DeRidder, La. to the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Because he had played only one year in high school, his first stop was junior college. After a season there, he enrolled at Southwestern Louisiana, but returned to Howard without playing a game. After his second JC season, Johnson was on the verge of going to Washington State when he decided "the vibes weren't right." Instead, he signed a Missouri Valley Conference letter of intent with New Mexico State, changed his mind again and agreed to go to Tulsa of the same league. He spent the summer of'76 working in Tulsa, then suddenly returned home. "I knew I wanted to play somewhere, but I didn't know where," he says. "I was afraid of becoming an outlaw."
When Johnson went back to Louisiana, Whisenant set out after him. Persistence has always been one of Whisenant's strong points—in 1974 he spent a month living in Petersburg, Va. while trying to recruit Moses Malone—and this time his dedication paid off. After flying to New Mexico in Whisenant's plane, Johnson enrolled in school. And he practiced with the Lobos, even while entertaining new offers from Washington State and Tulsa to transfer one more time.
"People were really messing up my mind about the problems that had gone on here at New Mexico," says Johnson in explaining his final bout with indecisiveness, "and I didn't know if I should commit myself by playing. That's why I didn't dress for the first game last year. But then the other guys on the team convinced me to stay, and I'm glad I did. Everything has worked out the way I hoped it would." Ellenberger would say amen to that.