ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —
Charlie Harrison, a man of some wealth, spends these days on an island off the North Carolina coast, retired, happy, his basketball coaching days far behind him.
But there was a long-ago season — an improbable, impossible season. It was a season no other college basketball coach has ever had to forge through.
It was the season of Lobogate, and for Charlie Harrison, it began with a phone call.
The first week
Charlie Harrison was 29 in 1979, a red-headed, mop-haired young man serious about basketball. He walked with a limp, a reminder that he had survived polio as a child growing up in North Carolina.
He had served an apprenticeship as Bob Knight’s graduate assistant at Indiana and worked on Dave Bliss’ staff at Oklahoma.
But on the last day of November 1979, he was the No. 1 aide to New Mexico’s Norm Ellenberger.
The Lobo basketball team was at the airport, preparing to fly to Denver for the first game of the season against the Colorado Buffaloes.
“The team was getting on the plane and I had gone back to the office to get a projector and some cans of film, which shows you how damn old I am,” Harrison remembers.
He picked up the phone and was surprised to hear UNM president Bud Davis on the other end. He was even more surprised to hear Davis wanted to talk to him.
“Dr. Davis called me and told me I was going to take the team because Norm had been suspended,” Harrison says.
Ellenberger and assistant Manny Goldstein had been benched in the midst of an FBI investigation. The FBI had tapped a gambler’s phone, and Goldstein had used that phone to call Ellenberger. It was a conversation involving the obtainment of fraudulent transcripts, and eventually, it led to legal issues over mail and wire fraud and NCAA recruiting violations.
But Harrison knew nothing about that. He did know FBI agents showed up at practice one day, so he figured something was up.
“It was scary. I’m a young man and the FBI was tailing me to my house,” Harrison says. “It was really crazy.”
He still knew little as he boarded the plane to Colorado with nine players and no head coach. He gathered the Lobos, who suddenly belonged to him, and told them to play hard, don’t think about what the future may hold.
“If you think I’m scared, no,” he told the Journal the day before the Dec. 1 game. “If you think I’m nervous, well, I’m nervous before every game.”
The Lobos lost to Colorado 86-78. Three days later, in their first home game, they beat West Texas State 112-100. Harrison got a call from his father, Henry, in Scotland Neck, N.C.
“Yeah, we crushed ’em,” Charlie told his dad. Then he laughed. “By 12.”
Meanwhile, the roster was in flux as the administration scrambled to determine who was eligible. By the time the Dec. 8 New Mexico State game in Las Cruces arrived, Harrison was left with only four scholarship players to take on Slab Jones and company.
He recruited a couple of football players and a student manager to fill out the roster.
And, somehow, New Mexico was ahead of the Aggies 40-33 at halftime.
Lobo freshman guard Michael Johnson had 20 points and 13 boards, and Keith Magee, a wide receiver on the UNM football team with three basketball practices under his belt, played 40 minutes.
The Lobos lost 68-58, but they had served notice. LSU assistant coach Art Tolis, who was scouting the game at the Pan American Center, called it “one of the most courageous games I’ve seen in 22 years of coaching.”
Harrison was not mollified.
“We came to win and we didn’t win, so I’m mad as hell,” he said after the game.
Call to action
Among those watching the Lobo-Aggie game on TV in Albuquerque was a 5-foot-11 UNM senior finance major named Lex Zerwas. He had been a very good high school player at Los Alamos, and his ears perked when announcer Henry Tafoya mentioned Harrison would be holding a tryout for anyone interested in becoming a Lobo.
Zerwas joined about 60 of his fellow UNM students in the Pit.
“I wouldn’t say it was crazy, but there were a lot of people, a lot going on,” Zerwas remembers.
At the end of the day, he was one of a couple guys selected.
“I was a little nervous, but I was excited,” says Zerwas, now a finance officer with a global mining company based in Phoenix.
As with everyone else in and around the program, he had no idea of what was coming. He had no idea how he would assimilate. But that’s where Harrison’s focused approach figured in.
“There was a lot going on, and it sounds cliché-ish, but we walked in, one practice at a time,” Zerwas says. “We stayed focus on keeping our grades up, making sure none of that was an issue.
“I really appreciated his — I won’t say calmness; I don’t know if you’d say coach Harrison was calm. But he was stabilizing.
“We felt like there wasn’t a game we went into that we didn’t have a plan to win. I really appreciated that of him. He never gave up on us. He believed in us. … I appreciate everything coach Harrison did for us.”
And Harrison appreciated his Lobos’ effort.
“They played hard,” Harrison says. “They were in every game but Wyoming and maybe one other game. They were competitive. It didn’t take much to motivate them. They played their butts off.
“Kenny Page was just outstanding. He had a green light to shoot it. … Lex, David Duggin, Jim Williams. They played against (BYU’s) Danny Ainge, (Utah’s) Danny Vranes.”
“I guarded Danny Ainge and Tony Gwynn,” Zerwas says. “I’m very grateful I had the opportunity.”
The Lobos managed only a 6-22 record, 3-11 in the Western Athletic Conference. They beat Hawaii, San Diego State (with Gwynn) and Colorado State. They lost to Utah by three, SDSU by two, Hawaii by eight, and the season finale to UTEP by one.
“Charlie handled it well,” says John Whisenant, who preceded Harrison as Ellenberger’s top assistant. “He maintained his poise and, under the circumstances, did what he needed to do.”
Harrison has no complaints about his plight.
“I have no regrets about the year,” Harrison says. “My only regret is that we didn’t win more games for the people. It wasn’t a bad year. The court cases were bad, but other than that, my time spent there was good time spent there.”
A team and its fans
Despite the defeats, a connection between this team and its fans formed.
“If there’s anything I remember, it’s the support we felt from the Lobo loyals,” Zerwas says. “The game we beat Colorado State, you couldn’t hear yourself. It was all you could do to concentrate on what coach was saying. They were going crazy. And UTEP, the last game of the year, we were close on that one. It was loud. It was fun. It was exciting, and they were there every step of the way.”
Harrison says, “How can you not play hard, especially at home, in the Pit? How could there ever be a down time? This team never came out flat. You don’t do that in the Pit. That’s ridiculous. The only other settings like it are at Kansas and Duke. Those three places.”
Harrison says when he looks back, “It’s like that novel, the best of times, the worst of times. I look back and I cherish my year in New Mexico.”
When asked what he remembers most, he says: “The people. The Pit.”
Harrison now spends much of his time fishing and watching basketball.
He and Ellenberger talk a couple of times a month.
“We both watch college basketball a lot,” Ellenberger says. “So we’re always talking back and forth — who’s good, who’s not good. Of course, he’s stuck out there in the Carolinas, so I’m always kidding him about: ‘There is other basketball around this country other than the Carolinas.’ Charlie’s good people. We’ve stayed close.”
But Harrison is no longer a coach — hasn’t been since leaving East Carolina in 1987.
In the middle of the 1979-80 season, UNM athletic director John Bridgers hired Gary Colson to be the new coach. Colson stayed in the shadows until the season was complete.
Under different circumstances, Harrison might have stayed on as part of Colson’s staff, but it became obvious Bridgers wanted a clean break from all ties to Ellenberger.
With Knight’s help, Harrison got a job as Johnny Orr’s assistant at Iowa State for a couple of seasons. Harrison parlayed that into the head coaching job at East Carolina in 1982, but he resigned after five seasons and only 51 wins. He says he had another coaching opportunity, but that didn’t pan out.
“I had nowhere to go, and a friend of mine said, ‘Let’s start this business,’” Harrison says.
It was an environmental services company. Harrison had majored in chemistry and biology at Guilford (N.C.) College, so he put that education to use. About 10 years ago, he sold the company and now lives a life of leisure.
Harrison visited UNM several years ago and ventured to the Pit to watch the Lobos, then coached by Fran Fraschilla.
“I saw two games,” he says. “They won them both.”
Harrison and his wife, Guiselle, may visit New Mexico again this fall.
“The people of New Mexico were awfully kind to me,” Harrison says. “I’m humbly thankful for that year.”
In March 1980, on his final day as a Lobo, Harrison met with his players.
Get your grades up, he told them. Stay out of trouble and work your butts off for Gary Colson.
Then he got out of there. He didn’t want his players to see him cry. He was done with the tears.
A season had passed. They were his players no more.