The high-energy Ellenberger era provided electricity on and off the basketball court
In this case, there was no calm before the storm.
Nor after it.
It was one crazy seven-year roller coaster of University of New Mexico basketball, filled with head-spinning highs and Pit-shaking lows.
Calm? No chance. This was the “Stormin’” Norman era.
There has been nothing like it before. There has been nothing like it since.
“It was really something,” says 80-year-old Norm Ellenberger, still as sharp, charming and witty as four decades earlier, despite serious heart issues.
“I have no regrets. Those were some of the best years of my life.”
Those years started in 1967, when he was hired as an assistant to Bob King, the father of Lobo basketball as it’s now known.
Despite King’s success, which included the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1968, there were rumblings after the Lobos went four straight seasons without a winning Western Athletic Conference record. By 1971, it became a tradition – some of it in jest, some of it just fans being fans – to boo King during pregame introductions.
But while there were those who might have soured on King, nearly everyone seemed enamored with that flamboyant, turquoise-wearing, fun-loving lightning rod of energy on the bench – which he rarely used to sit on.
King left after the 1971-72 season, and Ellenberger moved from that assistant’s spot to head honcho.
“It was probably all of the above,” Ellenberger says of whether King left because of pressure, health reasons or simply wanting a change. “He was going through a tough time right along in there.
“But I never really thought about how I’d be received. It was such a beautiful thing to be chosen. If somebody wanted me, fine. If somebody didn’t, fine. ‘But look out, because here I come.’”
He came, he saw, he conquered – and he eventually was forced out during one of the biggest scandals to ever rock college sports.
But in between, it was something.
Ellenberger brought a different attitude and a vastly different type of basketball from King’s old-school methods.
King was a defensive guru, but offensively very traditional.
“When I was a junior, Ellenberger came in (as King’s assistant) and said, ‘this is what we’re going to do,’” said Howie Grimes, a gritty Lobo forward from 1967-70.
“It was a little different style. Before, we’d throw the ball into the center. But Norm said, ‘We have four other guys. Why are they there?’ It took (King) back a little bit, but he got into it.
“… King was a psychologist. He’d bring you into his office, and say, ‘Think about this.’ With Ellenberger, it was a threat and a promise at the same time. It was good cop, bad cop.”
Despite their contrasting approaches, Ron Nelson, an All-American during UNM’s magical 23-5 season under King in 1967-68, said there was never any jealousy or animosity between the coaches.
“Bob loved Norm,” says Nelson, who lives in Albuquerque and owns an Uptown Square office building with former UNM assistant John Whisenant. “He thought Norm was the best assistant he ever had.”
The passionate and gregarious Ellenberger coached the game the way the players wanted to play – in-your-face full-court pressure and run-and-fun, slam-dunk offense.
And Albuquerque fell in love with the Lobos all over again.
Ellenberger’s first season was a smashing success. The Lobos won their first nine games and cracked the national rankings before getting dumped on the road by league foes Arizona State and Arizona – a common scenario in the early days of Lobomania.
UNM went on to a 21-6 record that was oh, so close to greatness. It lost back-to-back heartbreakers to Wyoming (61-60) and at UTEP (63-60) in its final two regular-season games, costing it the WAC title. It ended the season with a 65-63 loss to Virginia Tech in the opening game of the eight-team – and then very prestigious – National Invitational Tournament in New York City. Virginia Tech ended up winning the event.
That set the stage for 1973-74, and the only Lobo team other than 1968 to make the final 16 of an NCAA Tournament.
The 17th-ranked Lobos beat Idaho State in the NCAAs before losing to San Francisco. They beat Dayton in the now defunct regional consolation game, becoming the only team in school history to win two games in the event.
“I always thought we were probably looking past San Franciso to get to the (Bill) Walton-led UCLA team,” Whisenant said. “We kept coming out of the locker room and going back in during UCLA’s triple-overtime game with Dayton. I think that affected us.”
UCLA beat Dayton in three overtimes, setting up the consolation game between the Lobos and the Flyers.
Mediocrity, however, soon set in. The Lobos were a combined 48-35 overall and 20-22 in the WAC the next three seasons under Ellenberger.
Even in a day and age long before sports-talk radio attacks and website assassins, Lobo fans were ready to rumble. And grumble.
Folks today might not remember those lean years or the complaints, but Ellenberger does. And he said it was all right with him.
“If a guy buys a ticket, he has a right to rip me any time he wants,” Ellenberger says. “I really didn’t mind that, because they were at the game. You’re gonna get all sorts and all types, but the only time you worry about it is when they show up disguised as empty seats.”
They never were.
The Lobos averaged more than 15,000 fans during that three-year stretch. They were second in the nation in attendance twice and fourth once.
“We also had the best uniforms in college basketball history,” Bob Toppert, a Lobo guard from 1972-75, says of the turquoise jerseys. “Everywhere we went on the road, people went crazy over those uniforms.”
As they did at home.
Then in the 1977-78 season, Albuquerqueans just went bonkers, period.
That team – led by Michael Cooper, Marvin Johnson and Willie Howard – was ranked as high as No. 4 in the country, and flew into the NCAA Tournament as the pick of many to reach the Final Four.
“That season, it was like a dream while it was happening,” says Johnson, who averaged 24 points a game, including a school-record 50 in one.
The Lobos raced through the WAC with a 13-1 mark and were 24-3 overall. They needed but one win – against unheralded Cal State Fullerton in Tempe, Ariz. – to advance back to the Pit for the West Regionals. Two more wins at the Pit, and they would be Final Four-bound.
But long before there was Harvard 2013, there was Fullerton 1978.
The Titans – enormous underdogs – shocked the Lobos and buried a city’s dreams 90-85.
“Someone the other day asked me whether it was point shaving,” Cooper, a former Lakers star, told the Los Angeles Times in 1998 on the 20th anniversary of the upset. “We were so heavily favored. I have to sit them down and tell a lot of people that there was nothing illegal. Please tell people that Fullerton just beat us.”
But it’s a day Johnson will never forget.
“My last college game,” Johnson says. “Had we got past that game – man, that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I know we were a better team, but the perfect storm came from them.”
It only got worse for UNM and its Storm.
All good things must end – some ugly
After a 19-10 season in 1978-79, the bottom fell out of the sunken Pit.
Ellenberger was forced to resign in 1979 because of a scandal that sent shock waves throughout college sports and ripped the program to shreds. UNM landed on probation after a flurry of NCAA violations involving fraudulent transcripts.
Ellenberger, who actually faced criminal charges in the incident, doesn’t make excuses for what happened, but doesn’t like to discuss it in detail.
He does say that most of the stories written during the past 30-plus years have left out an important aspect of the scandal.
“I was never convicted of anything,” he says. “The (Journal) has consistently, over the years, when stories get pulled up out of files, referred back to (the convictions). But that was thrown out by the judge. His actual comments were ‘The jury and their attitude completely missed why they had the trial.’”
In 1981, he was convicted on 21 of 22 counts of fraud and filing false travel vouchers in connection with the operation of the UNM program. But District Judge Phillip Baiamonte, calling Ellenberger a “victim of high-pressure college athletics,” placed Ellenberger on one year of unsupervised probation.
In 1983, those convictions were formally dismissed and wiped from Ellenberger’s record.
A Journal story last year pointed out Baiamonte’s 1983 ruling, and Ellenberger was extremely grateful.
“I just really appreciated it so much,” he said in 2012. “It was the first story I can remember that told the whole story.”
There have always been whispers that folks at UNM in much higher positions than Ellenberger’s were involved, but he won’t comment about that.
“He got beat up so much,” says longtime friend Bob Briggs, 74, a recently retired Albuquerque dentist. “Those of us who really know him were behind him. He got a raw deal. I don’t want to name names, but those problems went up a lot higher than Norm.”
Ellenberger never got another college head coaching job, but he also never left the game he loved since his childhood in New Haven, Ind.
Ellenberger was head coach of both the Albuquerque Energee women’s pro team and Albuquerque Silvers men’s pro team. He was an assistant under the late Don Haskins at UTEP and for Bob Knight at Indiana, both his close friends. He was also an NBA assistant with the Chicago Bulls under another pal, Tim Floyd.
Putting heart into it, maybe too much
Last summer, Ellenberger landed another pro gig. He headed from the lakes of Watersmeet, Mich. – where he has lived in a lakeside cabin the past decade – to the fishbowl of New York. He became an assistant for the WNBA’s New York Liberty under his old Lobos assistant and longtime friend, Whisenant.
“It was great, just great to work with Norm again,” says Whisenant, 68. “Norm’s a great coach. He always has been and still is. And he’s been a great friend for a long, long time.”
Ellenberger, who had coached girls and boys high school ball much of the past decade, says he had a blast in the women’s league.
“It doesn’t get the push it really deserves, but there’s a lot of purity to the game,” he said. “It’s played by really good athletes. I didn’t run into anyone who wasn’t a college graduate with four years of playing experience.
“For some reason, the women’s game isn’t picked up by the normal fan base. It’s different because there isn’t the ability to dunk the ball or do things with the ball the NBA fans find interesting. … But the purity of game, making really good moves with two or three people involved with creating a play, it’s just a great aspect of basketball.”
The Liberty went 15-19 last year, and Whisenant – one time WNBA coach of the year at Sacramento – stepped down after the season.
Ellenberger, a guy who had always remained physically fit, was more than ready to head back to Watersmeet.
He said he was short on energy, and he knew it wasn’t just age. He was right.
“I was just getting tired all the time and couldn’t do things that I wanted,” he says. “(Turns out) my heart went goofy on me with some sort of thing. It’s AFib (atrial fibrillation and heart disease), where it doesn’t beat right. It’s something they have to fix. They put me in the hospital and did some kind of Star Wars thing where they stopped my heart, then started it beating again.
“But then they found a clot in the lower chamber of the heart. They don’t want to do anything till they get rid of that.”
Ellenberger has been on medication and has been in an out of heart clinics and hospitals in Wausau, Wis., for the past few months. He has a surgery scheduled for July 1.
But he remains upbeat and doesn’t like to dwell on any health issues.
“I just don’t know much about that kind of stuff,” he says. “I know there are some great heart doctors here, and they are doing what they can. I just trust them and let them do their thing.”
Briggs visited Ellenberger last week, and says his attitude is “very positive, but it’s really sad to see him in that condition.”
“Age is the great equalizer,” Briggs said. “We always saw him as so robust and full of energy. But he has trouble walking 15 feet without stopping to catch his breath.”
Briggs, however, said Ellenberger can still coach like crazy.
And not just basketball.
“He fishes like he coaches basketball – with the same passion,” Briggs says. “Every day he’s up at 5 a.m. and out on the lake, which is literally 8 feet from the front of his cabin. You misstep out the door, and you fall in the lake.
“Man, does he know that lake. He coached me on fishing. He points and tells me, ‘Throw it right there, between that piece of wood and that log, and it won’t be three seconds before you catch a smallmouth bass.’ He was right.”
Ellenberger fishes most of the day – many times from his canoe – chops wood when he can and lives the life of an outdoorsman.
But coaching is still in his blood, and he has coached a number of boys and girls high school teams in the area – located on the Upper Peninsula – since 2003.
And with great success. He has been named coach of the year in three districts, and in 2012 led the Watersmeet Lady Nimrods to the Porcupine Mountain Conference title.
“There are a bunch of little towns in the area that always need coaches,” said Ellenberger, whose cabin is surrounded by 24 square miles of lakes and streams.
“They all appreciate it so much, and I just really love doing it.”
As for coaching again, Ellenberger says, “I don’t know.”
After a pause, he adds, “Hell, yes. I’ve got to do that. What else can I do? There is only so much fishing a guy can do.”
As for his legacy, Ellenberger makes no excuses and holds no grudges. In fact, he said he is excited to hear the Journal was doing this series on former Lobo coaches and is anxious to read them.
“It truly was a wonderful experience,” he says. “When I left there, part of me stayed there. I’ve got some really good friends there and a lot of great memories. It was a very important part of my life.
“I’m completely satisfied within myself of my time there. There are no bad feelings. Those were some great, great years and I’ll always feel that way.”