Late last November the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque released a transcript of a tapped telephone conversation between Norm Ellenberger, the basketball coach at the University of New Mexico, and one of his assistants, Manny Goldstein. Goldstein and Ellenberger were overheard discussing paying off a junior-college official in Oxnard, Calif. to obtain a forged transcript for Guard Craig Gilbert, whom they were trying to keep eligible for the 1979-80 season.
But the phone tap was just the beginning. Soon, New Mexico found itself engulfed in a mushrooming scandal involving the manipulation of athletes' grades, a scandal that all but wiped out the UNM basketball team, forcing it to declare six players, including Gilbert, ineligible and to suspend a seventh.
By February, Ellenberger and a former assistant, John Whisenant, who had quit the New Mexico coaching staff after the 1978-79 season to become a realtor, had been indicted by a federal grand jury on mail-fraud charges; Ellenberger also was charged with one count of interstate travel in the aid of racketeering. But investigators had uncovered much more than alleged fraudulent behavior connected with keeping athletes eligible. Two weeks ago, a state grand jury, which had been conducting its own probe of the New Mexico mess, handed down an indictment charging Ellenberger with 22 counts of fraud and filing false public vouchers. Whisenant was hit with 12 counts on the same charges and Goldstein eight.
And the authorities, both federal and state, are still digging. Investigators are now exploring activities involving gambling and the illegal use of drugs. Although no indictments concerning betting and narcotics have been returned, probes are continuing into the following:
June 8, 1980
•Whether there was a relationship between Ellenberger and Whisenant and a group of well-known local gamblers. Whether these gamblers sometimes traveled with the team.
•Did Ellenberger and Whisenant bet? How much and how often and on what sports, and were they heavily in debt to bookmakers?
•Whether there was a relationship between the gamblers and some New Mexico players, who reportedly received cash gifts for good performances, and whether the gamblers helped the university recruit by paying $1,000 cash bonuses to prospective players.
•The possibility of fixed games.
•Whether any of the gamblers who hung around the New Mexico team had organized crime ties in Las Vegas.
•Whether there was overt use of cocaine in the New Mexico locker room and whether a local politician helped supply some Lobo players with drugs.
According to Whisenant, it was no secret that gamblers associated with the players and coaches. In fact, he readily admits that he numbers gamblers among his friends. "I play golf with them," he says. Asked if he discussed New Mexico basketball with them while out on the course, Whisenant says, "I talk with them about everything."
A steady flow of money reportedly went from the gamblers to some players—$100 for a good game, $20 for a successful free throw or a rebound, that sort of thing. Any player who wanted walking-around money only had to ask a gambler and he'd rarely have trouble finding someone to hit up, because there were nearly 20 gamblers who were regulars in the New Mexico entourage.
At one point, Whisenant admits, he was embarrassed by what was happening. "Some of them [players]," he says, "were like alley cats coming around to get something to eat. I heard they would go out and put the touch on five boosters or gamblers and end up with $100 or more in a short time. I tried to stop it by telling those guys not to give money to players unless I okayed it as a legitimate expense—like the dentist."
The state indictment—21 counts for submitting false travel vouchers to the university, the other count for intentionally misappropriating $3,000 in booster club funds—charges that Ellenberger, once the big hero of Lobo basketball, pocketed more than $7,000 from the university in an 18-month period starting in April of 1978 and ending last October. The indictment further alleges that he filed for and received reimbursement for fictitious trips and that he double-billed the school for travel to basketball clinics even though his expenses were covered by Medalist Industries, Inc., a company which manufactures consumer athletic products. The indictment charges that Ellenberger even managed to cheat both the Lobos' booster club and Charles Harrison, an assistant coach he hired last spring. Ellenberger allegedly told the club that he needed $4,000—in addition to the sum already allocated by the athletic department for Harrison's salary. The boosters gave Ellenberger a check for $4,000 made out to Harrison, and Ellenberger then told Harrison the club would pay him a $1,000 bonus for accepting the assistant's job. The other $3,000, Ellenberger said, was for himself. Harrison cashed the check and gave his new boss the three grand, according to the indictment. If convicted on all state counts, Ellenberger could get as many as 35 years in prison or be fined as much as $110,000, or both. The state's proceedings will follow the federal trial, which begins June 16.
When Ellenberger was at New Mexico, the Lobos ran up a 134-62 record in seven seasons, won two WAC championships and played in four postseason tournaments. Sellout crowds packed the 17,121-seat field house known as "The Pit." Among the large number of fans were a lot of gamblers.
Some bettors also were invited to parties Ellenberger threw. A guest at the Christmas party Ellenberger held at his residence in 1977 claims that someone laid out cocaine on a coffee table in the coach's living room. The same guest also says he saw some players snort cocaine in the Lobos' locker room after a game. Investigators are now checking on an Albuquerque politician who allegedly supplied the coke to players. Other players smoked marijuana regularly.
Gamblers have reportedly told investigators that Ellenberger and Whisenant bet regularly on football games. The gamblers didn't know about basketball but said that if the coaches had been betting on hoops, they probably would have used "beards" (front men), so as not to panic bookmakers into taking a game off the boards. Ellenberger's football bets, the gamblers claim, sometimes surpassed $700 a week, and one of his gambling debts ran to more than $4,000. Whisenant was more conservative, limiting himself to bets of about $100 a week. Ellenberger's and Whisenant's gambling was so blatant that some university authorities were aware of it. "It was an open secret that Ellenberger and Whisenant were betting on football," a former member of the Athletic Department says. "We heard about it when Ellenberger was slow to pay a bookie and a couple of boosters came up with the cash to square the debt. But Norm stiffed the boosters. Then the word really got around."
Asked about his betting, Ellenberger says, "I'm not a gambler." He also denies that there was any cocaine at his Christmas party. Indeed, Ellenberger takes the view that he has been "exonerated" of gambling or narcotics charges, because the federal grand jury hasn't indicted him on those grounds but for mail fraud. "That stuff about drugs and gambling and all is old hat," he says. "There's nothing new about it. It's all been before the grand jury. The FBI has explored everything about me, and I've been exonerated." Asked exactly how his exoneration came about, Ellenberger says, "You don't see anything about those things in the indictment against me, do you? Well, that means I'm clean. That stuff is all——anyway. I don't know anything about cocaine. I wasn't aware that anyone on the team was using it."
Federal investigators have given no hint, publicly or privately, of any such exoneration. In fact, they say that the investigation has been intensified. And Ellenberger, interviewed recently at his home, even said, "The FBI and the grand jury are all around—in the trees, everywhere. I'll bet they're watching us now."
And last week a former member of the State Attorney General's staff, James Blackmer, now with the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque, testified during a hearing on a defense motion to suppress information gathered from a telephone wiretap, that Ellenberger was heard placing a bet last Nov. 10 with Dr. Lee Farris, an alleged Albuquerque gambler. Earlier that day Albuquerque police had recorded a call from Farris' phone to Ellenberger's home during which a list of six college football teams playing that day was read.
Farris, a retired gynecologist, is one of Ellenberger's pals. In fact, he has a reserved parking spot outside the New Mexico field house. It was a tap on his phone that led to the disclosure of the transcript manipulation. His house had been one of several places searched by police last fall, and his phone had been tapped during an investigation by the New Mexico Organized Crime Strike Force, a team of Justice Department attorneys and FBI agents, and the Albuquerque police, all of whom were probing gambling operations.
In contrast to Ellenberger, Whisenant candidly admits that he bet regularly with bookmakers on college and pro football. He acknowledges that the gamblers were correct in estimating that his wagers didn't exceed $100 a week. Whisenant is more cautious when asked if he knew that Ellenberger had been betting. He says that he and Ellenberger had "talked about it." He doesn't take Ellenberger's rosy view of the intensified federal investigation. "The prosecution is trying to show the use of cocaine, betting and point shaving by players and coaches," he says.
At least three New Mexico basketball games are under scrutiny. The main one is the 90-85 upset loss to Cal State Fullerton in the first round of the 1978 NCAA tournament. The Lobos were favored to win the game, played at Tempe, Ariz., by 12 points. Michael Cooper, now with the L.A. Lakers, played that day for the Lobos and is suspicious of Ellenberger's coaching.
"The substitution was kind of funny," Cooper says. "Me and Marv Johnson were the leading scorers on the team, and between us we only got four points in the second half of that game. I figured at the time, Norm didn't think we were playing up to our potential, although he never said anything. He had us in and out, in and out, like a yo-yo thing. I'd go in, he'd yank me out. Same with Marv. It was like he didn't want us to get warm.
"And then there was Jimmy Allen [the starting center]. The first 10 minutes of the game he was dominating. The next thing I knew I was sitting on the bench right next to him.
"After the game he [Norm] didn't feel nothing, and that was strange, too," Cooper continues. "We were 13-1 in the conference, and when we lost to Utah—after we had the thing all wrapped up—he was in tears. After the Cal Fullerton game he gave us the long story, but I could tell he didn't feel nothing. I mean so many things about it were funny. If we had beaten them, we would have come home and played the next two rounds of the tournament at our place. In a sense I was looking past Fullerton all the way to the final four. Then you hear that you have been sold out like that. That's a hard way to go down. Well, not sold out, but cheated, you might say."
Asked about Cooper's comments, Ellenberger says, "I don't believe Cooper said that, at least not in that context." Whisenant says, "I can't believe Cooper said those things." He says New Mexico lost because he and Ellenberger "underestimated" Cal Fullerton. That and "bad" performances by Cooper and other players lost the game.
Two other Lobos games are under suspicion:
The 78-58 loss to San Diego State on Jan. 2, 1976. A former university official describes the play of one of New Mexico's stars as having been "atrocious," adding that there was no explanation why the player was "so bad."
The Feb. 23, 1977 game with Utah at Salt Lake City, during which Ellenberger ordered the favored Lobos into a 10-minute slowdown and which they lost 94-84. "All of us were stunned," says the former New Mexico official. "Norm said he was 'controlling the tempo' of the game, but that seemed like——."
As for the transcripts, Ellenberger, Whisenant and Goldstein were not the only ones working that scam. Other athletes at the school attained eligibility with fake transcripts. One investigator estimates that the "credits of two-thirds of the football players are questionable."
Whisenant says some top administrators at the university must have known full well what was going on. "We had to get the players," he says. "If you don't get them, you're fired because you don't win." The indictments handed down so far are unfair, Whisenant claims, because, in his opinion, "We're indicted for what every coach is doing."