Ordinarily, Coach Norm Ellenberger would have enjoyed the crazy, chaotic scene at Albuquerque International Airport last Friday as the University of New Mexico basketball team prepared to embark on its season-opening trip to the University of Colorado in Boulder. It would have been reasonable to expect the television cameras and the swarm of reporters, photographers and fans that charged the atmosphere. After all, Ellenberger, 48, is a hip fast-lane traveler, adorned with gold chains and turquoise jewelry, long hair and sexy mustache, tailored jeans and open-to-the-navel silk shirts. He is the man who in seven seasons compiled a 134-62 record, won two Western Athletic Conference titles and took his team to four postseason tournaments. He is the man who turned Lobo basketball into a statewide religion, a focus of popular frenzy surpassed by few college basketball teams anywhere.
But this was no ordinary send-off. Nor was it an ordinary day in the ever-expanding, ever-darkening industry of intercollegiate athletics. It was a day when the University of New Mexico found itself—like Arizona State a few weeks earlier—answering difficult questions about a fictitious transcript and misplaced athletic priorities. But there were other, perhaps even darker, clouds over Albuquerque. The New Mexico Organized Crime Strike Force was in on the investigation with local police, amid allegations of illegal gambling activities, possibly involving individuals with ties to the UNM basketball program.
Ellenberger would not show up at the airport, nor would Assistant Coach Manny Goldstein. Also staying home was junior Craig Gilbert, a transfer from Oxnard (Calif.) College, a ball-handling and defensive gem who had been slated to start for the Lobos at point guard.
Although the other players and Assistant Coach Charlie Harrison were stunned by these absences, they should not have been. That morning, two days after every player and coach had been interrogated at practice by agents of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque released documents that implicated Ellenberger and Goldstein in a morass of unsavory activity. A federal search warrant and an attached Albuquerque Police Department transcription of a tapped telephone conversation between the two coaches indicated that in order to make Gilbert eligible to play for New Mexico, Goldstein had forged a transcript in Gilbert's name from a junior college that Gilbert said he had never heard of and then allegedly paid the dean of admissions at Oxnard to apply the bogus credits to Gilbert's record.
December 10, 1979
It was a revelation that sent the university and the state of New Mexico reeling, with aftershocks felt wherever there are adults who will do almost anything to convince teen-agers to come play for their colleges. The revelation also startled the NCAA, even though it had been investigating New Mexico closely and in mid-September had charged the school with an undisclosed but substantial number of rules violations. NCAA action apparently is the least of the university's worries; Ellenberger and Goldstein could face federal charges of bribery and wire and mail fraud after a grand jury hears testimony, beginning Dec. 12.
Within hours of the team's departure for Colorado, the university's president, William E. (Bud) Davis, announced that both coaches had been suspended—Ellenberger at his own request, following a 45-minute meeting with Davis, after which he went into seclusion; Goldstein in absentia, because he was nowhere to be found at the time. As for Gilbert, reached in his dorm room, confused and alone, he said, "I didn't know anything about this. I just heard on TV that I'm done for the year. I guess I'll go home soon."
Coming as they did in a public-record document, the startling disclosures provided a unique look at the seamy side of recruiting, in which men like the 30-year-old, Brooklyn-born Goldstein forage for players in ghetto playgrounds and high school gyms, and at relatively obscure junior colleges like Oxnard or Mercer County in New Jersey. At the junior colleges, recruiters find players who didn't go big-time after high school. Maybe they had poor grades. Maybe they got into trouble. Maybe they needed work on their jump shot or needed to grow three inches.
Ellenberger has gone the juco route for the last several years. Maybe he has not had model citizens on his teams, but he has won—and packed the house. And to some that is really all that counts. In the past five months alone, one recent Lobo player has been convicted of misappropriating city funds and a second of credit-card fraud, while a third was charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault but hasn't yet come to trial. A current player, Kenny Page, who played his high school ball in Staten Island, removed a Cadillac from an Albuquerque dealer's showroom last June without permission and drove it to Columbus, Ohio. A stolen-car report was filed with the police but retracted two days later. Page had brought his Triumph TR-7 into Galles Oldsmobile Cadillac Co. for repairs and was given an Olds Cutlass as a "loaner." Page drove the Cutlass away but "just didn't like it." So he brought it back, switched the plates to a Seville, took the keys and headed for Ohio State, where he played his freshman year and was placed on team probation for undisclosed reasons. Page was told to return the car, which he did. Alan Summers, the sales manager, canceled the police report. Summers is a member of the Lobo Club, the local booster organization. Page is one of the Lobos' star players.
Then there is Wil Smiley, a 6'10" center who played for Ellenberger from 1976 to 1978. Smiley, who is from the Bronx, spent time in several New York state reformatories and then enrolled in Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College without graduating from high school. While in Scottsdale he was convicted of rape, and immediately after being paroled from the Arizona state prison in Florence. Smiley enrolled at New Mexico. He did not graduate and until recently worked as a laborer in the Albuquerque street department. "The man just used me because I was a tall dude." says Smiley, referring to Ellenberger. "If I ain't 6'10", I'm back in jail, and they throw away the key."
"I went to class for a while," Smiley says now. "But you know how it is. You start to slide more and more, and pretty soon, you just lay around all day, waiting for time to practice." Smiley says he has no regrets about his lack of education: "Hell, no. I'm doing just fine now, making good money and keeping out of trouble. School was just something to pass the time."
"Norm loves the renegade image," said a friend of the suspended Lobo coach last week. "And I'll tell you the fans love it, too. Or they don't care. As long as Norm gives them a winner, they don't care how the players act."
The current New Mexico roster lists eight juco transfers among its 11 eligible players. An obvious advantage of recruiting junior college players is that they already have two years of post-high school experience. A disadvantage is that they've had two years to become spoiled stars. But it's easier to admit a juco transfer and make him eligible than it is to admit a freshman. According to the NCAA's eligibility rules, a freshman must have a 2.0 grade-point average from high school. That is as difficult for some as being asked to play defense. Juco transfers are eligible if, after two years, they've completed 48 hours of transferable work with a 2.0 average, or if they've earned an associate of arts (A.A.) degree from a junior college. "At some of these junior colleges it doesn't take a whole lot to complete 48 hours of 2.0 work," says New Mexico Dean of Admissions Robert M. Weaver. And once a juco transfer gets in, he has little trouble maintaining his 2.0, what with courses like Fundamentals of Football and Fundamentals of Basketball, two that are available to UNM athletes as well as other students. Very few basketball players lose their eligibility during a season, even though, according to Ike Singer Jr., New Mexico's associate athletic director in charge of monitoring the players' academic standing, the graduation rate for basketball players is "around 25%."
Recruiting these players is a high-pressure business for a school like New Mexico, whose basketball program earned more than $1 million last year, enough to cover most of the losses incurred by the university's other teams. Attendance at "The Pit," as the Lobos' arena is called, averaged 16,641 last year, 97% of capacity. Every game is sold out for this season, and more than 3,000 season-ticket orders went unfilled. In addition, 822 reserved standing-room spots are usually sold for each game, this despite the fact that every game, home and away, is televised in Albuquerque.
Norm Ellenberger obviously liked Manny Goldstein's results, if not his style. Goldstein is paunchy and balding, and he speaks in the brisk Brooklyn used-car-salesmanese that some outlanders expect from New Yorkers. Goldstein knows the New York ball yards, and high school and juco coaches everywhere. He played at the University of Corpus Christi in Texas and recruited and coached for a year and a half at Pan American. He also worked for Coach Beryl Shipley at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where the basketball program was all but shut down when the NCAA cited it for more than 100 rules violations in 1973. Goldstein denies having had any part in that fiasco, and when former New Mexico Athletic Director Lavon McDonald checked Goldstein out with the NCAA before he was hired, McDonald was told there would be no problem. Still, Manny Goldstein has that big reputation for being a high-pressure recruiter.
According to New Mexico law-enforcement officials, the revelation of the forged transcript was something of a fluke. Last spring the New Mexico Strike Force, a team of lawyers and investigators that focuses on certain aspects of organized crime, initiated an investigation into gambling operations in the Albuquerque area and possible links to organized-crime figures. Because one of the suspected operations involved the use of a federal government computer, the FBI participated in the investigation. In September, New Mexico Judge Jack Love ordered several wiretaps on suspected gamblers. One of the taps was on the phone of Lee Farris, a retired gynecologist who is alleged to be a close friend of both Goldstein and Ellenberger and reportedly has been seen visiting Ellenberger in the New Mexico basketball locker room.
On Nov. 19, officers of the Albuquerque Police Department and representatives of the State Attorney General's office raided 13 homes and businesses. Among the items seized in the various raids were betting slips, sports-line sheets, computer printouts, telephone voice scramblers, phone lists with coded names, a slot machine, $8,500 in cash, telephone bills and safe-deposit keys. When Albuquerque police and representatives of the Attorney General's office interviewed players, coaches and university officials last Wednesday, most of the questions pertained to gambling.
While the gambling investigation was going on, the FBI was working on another angle, one it had been alerted to on Nov. 17 when Albuquerque police officer Larry Bullard overheard a conversation on Farris' tapped line purportedly between Ellenberger and Goldstein. (APD detective Pat O'Hearn confirmed the voice identifications.) In the conversation, Goldstein told Ellenberger that he had forged a transcript for Gilbert from Mercer County Community College in Trenton, N.J. Goldstein also told Ellenberger that he had arranged through Robert Maruca, the athletic trainer at Oxnard College, to pay $300 to Dr. John Woolley, dean of admissions at Oxnard. Woolley would then apply the bogus credits to Gilbert's transcript from Oxnard.
FBI agents in Los Angeles said that Woolley suggested "laundering" the transcript, that credits could be applied to Gilbert's record if they came from another college, as long as the transcript appeared to be genuine. Maruca allegedly told Woolley that the reason Mercer County Community College would be used was that Goldstein said he had a college seal from Mercer. Last Sunday, Woolley said he had never heard of Goldstein "until the FBI agent mentioned his name." He also said, "I've done nothing illegal." As for Maruca, he said, "We did not use good judgment."
According to Ike Singer, who has worked in New Mexico's Athletic Department since 1956, UNM had two transcripts from Craig Gilbert, one from Santa Barbara (Calif.) City Junior College, which Gilbert attended in 1977-78, the other from Oxnard, which he attended in 1978-79. Gilbert's grade-point average was better than 2.0, but he was still some eight hours short of the 48 hours needed to make him eligible. "My understanding from Manny Goldstein was that Gilbert was going to summer school at Oxnard and that the transcript showing the completed eight hours would arrive anytime," says Singer. The extra eight hours had no bearing on Gilbert's eligibility for enrollment, only on his eligibility for athletics. In anticipation of athletic eligibility, which Singer believed to be forthcoming, Gilbert was already enrolled on full scholarship. "I periodically asked Manny Goldstein for the summer transcript," says Singer, "and he kept telling me, 'Oh, it's coming.' One time he said that the boy owed some money out there, and they would not release the transcript until it was settled. And that was the last I heard about it until this all blew up. I guess I was naive. I probably shouldn't have been after all these years, but...."
Goldstein thought he had the problem licked, according to the verbatim transcript of the Nov. 17 conversation with Ellenberger:
Goldstein: I got him a degree, an A.A. degree.
Ellenberger: You got him a degree?
Goldstein: Yeah, they're gonna put 16 more hours on the transcript, this is the way they want it.
Ellenberger: Which means he graduated.
Goldstein: Yeah, he graduated.... This is what they said they wanted. Manny, this is just to protect everyone and do it. So just don't worry about it. Soon as they get something...
Ellenberger: Soon as they what now?
Goldstein: Soon as they get something, I'm, I've handled it the, they showed me, ah, I spoke to the guy, soon as they get this they get. They're giving the kid a degree, a A.A. You know...Okay, this was the Dean of Students, this is how he said to do it. He said just get me an envelope from New Jersey with his transcript.
Ellenberger: Uh huh.
Goldstein: And then I'm protected. Then I'm gonna take the credits, put them down as summer work, you know, without mentioning names, just say summer of '79.
Ellenberger: Uh huh.
Goldstein: You know.
Ellenberger: And he'll do that?
Goldstein: Yeah, he's doing that. I mean we got to give him a little money, but he's doing it.
Goldstein: You know, I bought the guy and that was it.
Ellenberger: Who was that, this Maruca?
Goldstein: No, this is Doctor Woolley, the head guy.
Ellenberger: Uh huh.
Goldstein: He's a, you know, Maruca did the talking. He said, listen, they're good people and you know how much we're talking. You know he gave me a figure and I said, that's agreeable to us. 300 that's all. And as soon as he gets the envelope from New Jersey, you know the post mark from New Jersey.
Ellenberger: Uh huh.
Goldstein: Okay, so I did that. So, I'm leaving for a recruiting trip. I'm gonna be in New Jersey Monday, get an envelope, mail it myself. Special Delivery, Air Mail, and it's being shipped out there.
On Nov. 23 the FBI intercepted the forged transcript in a Los Angeles post office. It had been mailed from New Jersey, special delivery. It was embossed with the seal of Mercer County Community College. It was made out for Craig Gilbert and included a non-existent address in Trenton.
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, FBI agents searched Goldstein's office and his home, and their report indicated that they found a Mercer County Community College envelope, a Mercer transcript-request form, a Mercer official embossing seal, telephone message notes with the name of Lee Porter (Oxnard basketball coach), the address of Bob Maruca and a manila folder containing Mercer transcripts for Craig Gilbert and Andre Logan. Logan, a senior co-captain on the New Mexico team, transferred from Mercer in 1978. Because his transcript was found in Goldstein's apartment, university officials at first suspected it may have been doctored, and Logan was kept off the plane to Colorado. But his eligibility was later confirmed, and he joined the team in Boulder for the game Saturday night, which the Lobos lost 86-78.
The NCAA last week was silent on the New Mexico situation. The university has until Feb. 1 to answer the NCAA's charges, but everyone at New Mexico is prepared for the worst. The athletic department had been without a director since McDonald was relieved in October, until last week when John Bridgers, the former AD at Florida State, was hired. At his press conference to announce the suspensions of Ellenberger and Goldstein, UNM President Davis said it was "lack of leadership and discipline for the past several years that allowed things to deteriorate so badly." Davis cited a letter sent Nov. 7, 1978 from Mercer registrar Donald Beach to Fred M. Chreist Jr., then the New Mexico registrar, saying that Goldstein had asked a number of instructors at Mercer to change grades of a basketball player who might transfer to New Mexico. "McDonald reprimanded Goldstein then," said Davis. "I just learned about the letter this week. Obviously the reprimand had little effect on Manny."
Ellenberger remained out of public view all last weekend. He called Assistant Coach Harrison in Boulder on Friday, and between fits of sobbing, he told Harrison that he had had four conversations with Goldstein regarding Goldstein's plan to forge the Gilbert transcript and that in the first three he told Goldstein not to do it. "And the fourth one had to be the one that was taped," said Ellenberger.
Craig Gilbert thus becomes another unfortunate victim of the recruiting industry. Friday night he was holed up in his dormitory room, learning of his fate only by reading the papers and watching the television news. "I heard tonight that I'm ineligible for the rest of the year," he said somberly. "I didn't know anything about this until the FBI asked me if I ever went to Mercer College. I told them I never heard of it. I was never out of California in my life before I came to New Mexico." Did he know when he was at Oxnard that he would be short of credits? "I never knew anything about credits," he said. "The school's supposed to take care of that." He admitted that he did not go to class very often, and that when basketball was not in season he barely went at all.
Goldstein first approached Gilbert after an Oxnard game against L.A. Trade-Tech last winter. "At that time I didn't want to go to New Mexico," Gilbert says. "Some friends told me that it was like Vegas [University of Nevada-Las Vegas] and that it was just a matter of time before they would get caught. But in March, I came up here to a game, saw the big crowd and decided I had to come. Yeah, definitely, I wanted that." He says he had no idea that he would be ineligible. But just in case, he says, he enrolled in two summer courses at Compton (Calif.) Community College. No one at New Mexico seemed to know that Gilbert went to Compton. "I took two classes," says Gilbert. "A math class and, uh, I think the other was a sex-education class." Gilbert says that if he loses his eligibility to play basketball at New Mexico he is through with school. He says he will go back home to Santa Barbara and "just find something to do. The classes aren't going to help me that much." Right now he is enrolled in two black-history courses (he's not sure of their names or numbers), Speech Communication, Swimming and Fundamentals of Baseball.
Though Ellenberger was unavailable to discuss the current troubles at UNM, he had given SI an insight into his philosophy in an interview last June. "I make sure to tell them," he said, "you don't eat basketballs for breakfast. The amount they listen depends on how much fear they have. Fear of not making it, of going back to the streets, of not being a well-rounded person. No matter how much you say that, most of them just don't comprehend anything past the present day. What's a young man going to have when he wakes up and realizes he made a mistake?"
By Saturday, Manny Goldstein was found, shaken and distraught, at his apartment on the east side of town. He said he had told the FBI everything, admitted guilt in the transcript forgery, taken all the blame. But he said that he was led to believe by Oxnard Coach Lee Porter that Gilbert would be eligible. "Porter said he had 48 hours," Goldstein said. "That he would be eligible. Do I feel bad for the kid? Yup. But no matter how badly I feel, who do you think screwed him? You think I screwed him? He did not have 48 hours. I found out [in] November.... Now tell me what I can possibly do to get him eligible? I took a chance. Yup. I did it. Yup. The kid had no future so I stuck my neck out for him. And now it's chopped. Now I suffer. He had nothing to lose. He's not eligible, O.K.? And then he is eligible, O.K.? And now he's not eligible. So what did I do? They have me for changing a transcript or allegedly making one up. Now you tell me how bad a crime I did. I bought a seal. I didn't steal it. I went to a print shop and had it made, and I bought it. To get that stuff? The papers? Let me tell you it can be done at any school. Did I try to hurt the kid? He's not eligible! He had nothing to lose. He's screwed no matter what. I considered everything. This was the last resort. I didn't do anything illegal until I had to. So I'm the worst criminal in the world; I'm worse than Frank Kush [the former Arizona State football coach]. I'm worse than any of them. I'm no martyr. I just did something that I regret."
Soon enough Craig Gilbert will be back in Santa Barbara, "just finding something to do." He has not spoken to Manny Goldstein, but if he does, he says, "I will tell him that people like him belong behind bars. He could have told me what was going on. I could have made the decision for myself. I don't know if he did it for me or if he did it for the school. I'd like to think he did it for me."