ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He rebuilt New Mexico basketball from the depths of Lobogate and could have been just one season away from an incredible campaign – but then he was fired
He seemed to be on the cusp of one of the greatest seasons, and maybe eras, in Lobo basketball history.
Sure, Gary Colson had been oh-so-close before, but he and his Lobos had never quite kicked down that NCAA Tournament door – the one bolted shut by the NCAA a decade earlier.
In 1988-89, however, the makings for greatness had seemingly aligned for Colson.
“It sure looked that way, didn’t it,” the laid-back and personable Indiana native, now 78, said recently. “We had Luc (Longley) here already. We had Rob Robbins and signed Matt Othick, who ended up starting at Arizona. And Matt was going to bring Brian Williams.
“And we had (Rob) Loeffel, Charlie Thomas. Man, we were really loaded,” he continues with a slight chuckle. “And we won 25 games the year before (UNM athletic director John) Koenig was hired. It was weird, that whole deal.”
In eight years at New Mexico, Colson had cleaned up the sewage of the Lobogate scandal that decimated the program, put it on probation and made the Lobos the national poster children for what’s wrong with big-time collegiate athletics.
By 1988, everything looked to be moving forward. UNM was coming off a season that included a national ranking and ended just shy of the NCAA Tournament. With the group coming back and the new one coming in, the Lobos’ long-term potential looked endless.
“We would probably have become Arizona, and Arizona would have been us,” says former Lobo Rob Robbins, a starting freshman shooting guard during that 1987-88 UNM season.
“Tracy Murray was coming, Othick and Williams were coming,” Robbins says of three guys who eventually joined Longley in the NBA. “Willie Banks was going to be a freshman. With the way Colson coached offense? My God, we would have led the nation in scoring and made a run in the NCAA Tournament. It would have been a great program for a long time.”
Colson never got a crack at that 1988-89 season, and that Lobo dream team never materialized.
Koenig, after just one year at the school, fired Colson following the 1987-88 season. He hired Dave Bliss, who coached the Lobos for next 11 seasons.
“Why administrators do things, sometimes it’s mind-boggling to me,” says NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West, one of Colson’s best friends since the late 1970s. “Wherever Gary went, he had success. And he’s just so easygoing that sometimes administrators don’t know how difficult (coaches’) jobs are. I wonder sometimes, if they’re qualified – even athletic directors.
“When somebody wins all the time, I’d like to know what more is expected? Do they think they can win a (national) championship? Chances are, New Mexico isn’t ever going to win a (national) championship. That’s the fate of a lot of teams. They’ll have very competitive teams, but the big schools get the players that lead to great success.”
Koenig and Bliss would eventually leave legacies of corruption.
In 1989, Koenig and two former associate athletic directors were charged in a 58-count indictment by a Bernalillo County grand jury. Koenig was named in 47 counts that primarily consisted of charges of making false public vouchers, fraud, criminal solicitation and conspiracy.
In a plea bargaining arrangement, prosecutors dropped 41 of the 47 counts and Koenig pleaded guilty to six fourth-degree felonies: one count of criminal solicitation, two of fraud and three of tampering with evidence.
Former associate athletic director Mike Dill pleaded no contest to a single charge of conspiracy to commit fraud, while 10 other charges against him were dropped.
Bliss, years later at Baylor, was banned from college basketball for a decade after one of most sinister scandals in the sport’s history, involving an attempted coverup of the murder of former Lobo-turned-Bear Patrick Dennehy.
“Bliss couldn’t adjust to the personnel,” says Robbins, who makes no bones about his dislike for Bliss – as a coach and a person. “He had no idea what to do with a big man. He had the most one-dimensional team in the history of New Mexico basketball.
“And between Colson and Bliss, I got to see two opposite ends of the moral scale in my time at UNM.”
Who truly knows if all those future NBA players would have played for UNM at the same time, but Othick and Banks, a future Lobo star, signed letters of intent.
The late Brian Williams (he later changed his name to Bison Dele), was one of Othick’s best friends and was transferring out of Maryland to play with Othick.
Word was that Murray, recruited by a number of schools, leaned to New Mexico.
Returning, indeed, were 7-footers Longley and Loeffel, along with 6-7 power forward Thomas, who was seventh in the league in scoring and sixth in rebounding in ’87-88. Darrell McGee, the starting point guard, was third in the league in assists as a sophomore.
Longley, Loeffel, Robbins, Thomas and Banks all ended their career as 1,000-point scorers.
However, after Colson’s departure, Othick escaped his UNM commitment and went to Arizona. Williams followed him there.
The Wildcats, who had already been to a recent Final Four, were on their way to becoming one of the nation’s premier programs for two decades.
Murray ended up at UCLA. Like Williams and Longley, he became a first-round NBA pick.
On the verge
During that 1987-88 season, the Lobos cracked the Top 20 for the first time since Lobogate vaporized the program off the national landscape. In January they rolled off 10 straight wins, including the biggest one-week upset binge in school history when they beat No. 1 Arizona and No. 5 Wyoming in the Pit, and shot into the polls at No. 18 the following week.
The ranking was short-lived.
The following week UNM suffered back-to-back losses at WAC cannon fodder San Diego State and Hawaii – two teams that went a combined 7-25 in the league.
“I really think we overlooked those games after what we did the week before,” says Hunter Greene, who averaged nearly 17 points and seven rebounds a game as a senior in 1987-88. “There were a lot of ups and downs that year, and early in the season it certainly looked like we would go to the NCAA Tournament.”
Two weeks later, the Lobos beat another ranked team, this time at No. 18 UTEP. But they lost five of their final six, ended up on the NCAA bubble and watched it burst on Selection Sunday.
“Everyone always points to the NCAA selection committee being the problem, but I always felt we controlled our own destiny in my four years,” Greene says – then references the 1986-87 season, when those Lobos lost the Western Athletic Conference tournament title game in the Pit to Wyoming, 64-62.
“You couldn’t ask for a better situation for getting into the NCAA Tournament than being at home and a bucket away.”
Wyoming, led by Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner, made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament that season.
That loss, coupled with the NCAA snub in 1988, left more than a few folks grumbling – despite UNM winning 47 games over those same two seasons.
The Lobos had gone to the NIT five straight years.
“The cabinet was definitely full when Bliss came in,” Greene says. “I honestly think had Colson been given the opportunity to take the team he assembled and recruited, I think he would have done a hell of a job. I’m sure he would have gotten into the tournament.
“Unfortunately, he got a bad rap for his road record (3-12 outside the Pit in 87-88), but look around the conference then – not many teams were winning in the Pit or anywhere else on the road.”
Current Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt, an assistant under Colson for seven years, says Colson and the UNM staff were victims of bad timing.
“We just happened to inherit what people would say was a bad hire in John Koenig,” Shyatt says. “It was all pre-determined by the lady in charge (UNM women’s athletics director Linda Estes) and Koenig. And that’s just sometimes the way things happen. It’s not unique to New Mexico, it just happened to be the time for us.
“We all landed on our feet and we’re all healthy, thank God. But timing in our profession is paramount.”
West and East
Colson came to UNM after successful stints at Valdosta (Ga.) State (1958-68) and Pepperdine (1968-79). He went 188-69 at Valdosta State and was 153-137 with the Waves, leading them to the round of 16 in the 1976 NCAA Tournament.
After New Mexico, Colson was an assistant at Cal for one season, then become head coach at Fresno State from 1990-95, where he went 76-73. Another opportunity then came along.
“When I was at Fresno, Gary Cunningham was athletic director,” Colson says. “After I retired, he went to Santa Barbara (as athletic director of UC Santa Barbara) and wanted me to come with him as assistant athletic director. I loved the place, and took the job.”
After five years, it was time to go East young man – for a man named West.
In 2002, Jerry West was hired as president of basketball operations of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. He hired Colson as assistant to the president of basketball operations.
“He was my right-hand man, there’s no question about it,” West told the Journal . “He made my life a lot easier in terms of me being able to focus on the basketball side of it.”
West and Colson were with the Grizzlies until 2007.
After his NBA stint, Colson moved back to Santa Barbara – “paradise on earth,” he says – but kept close to the game he’s loved since his childhood in Logansport Ind.
He has a basketball website – Garycolson.com – and has written 35 articles about the fundamentals of the game. He frequently instructs shooting clinics and camps, and also teaches basketball classes at UC Santa Barbara.
“The passion is still there,” he says. “Basketball is in my blood. I think about it all the time. I watch it every day.
“I don’t know if I could withstand the yearlong pressures (of another head coaching job). I think I could. And I just might try it again.”
Twice, Colson has done clinics in Japan and says he became friends with coaches and administrators in the professional Japanese Basketball League.
He said he’s been asked about his interest to coach in the JBL.
“I’ve done a lot of research about it, and they want me to take a job,” says Colson, who compares the talent there to Division I college ball. “I’d say it’s about 50-50 that I’ll go.
“I’m kind of thinking, ‘why not?’ It’s clean and the people are nice and polite. The weather is terrific. It will add 10 years to my life.”
Colson says there are 20 teams in the league but it’s expanding to 30. His decision will be based on where he can coach.
“I love Tokyo and Osaka,” he says. “If those jobs are available, I’ll probably go.
“I’d try for a year or two. If it doesn’t work, I live in paradise so it doesn’t matter. I asked (wife) Mary Kathrine (if she wants to go), and she said, ‘I’m in.’ ”
Colson first met Mary Kathrine in 1990 in Berkeley, Calif., where he was associate head coach at Cal under Lou Campanella.
Colson and Mary Kathrine (maiden name Moulton) married in November 1991.
“I’m a firm believer in a silver lining,” he said. “I left Albuquerque and went to Berkeley. A year later, I’m in a coffee shop and this beautiful girl walks in. We started talking, and we’ve been together 25 years.
“If Koenig hadn’t have fired me, I would have never met her. With her, I know the difference between infatuation and love. I couldn’t understand that before.”
But he had plenty of practice trying to figure it out.
This is his fourth marriage. In 1982, the 46-year-old Colson married 25-year-old UNM assistant volleyball coach Wanda (maiden name Grissom).
“I’ve been married so many times, I’ve got skid marks on my face from people throwing rice,” he says.
Colson has some match-maker skills as well. He showed that with his pal Jerry West.
“Jerry spoke at a banquet for me when I was at Pepperdine 30-some years ago,” Colson says. “Afterwards, he asks me, ‘who was that woman in the front row? I’d love to meet her.’ She was captain of the cheerleaders. He he was recently divorced, so I set up a lunch with the three of us.”
The three quickly became two.
“After five minutes at the cafe, I could see how it was going. I said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ They dated a couple of years, then got married.”
West and Karen (formerly Bua) still are. Of Colson, “he’s just a great guy, as down to earth and as common as you want to meet,” West says. “But he’s also a terrific basketball coach. …There isn’t anything I wouldn’t trust him with.”
Shyatt, who has been also been a head coach at Clemson, has been an assistant under big-name coaches such as Rick Barnes (Providence) and Billy Donovan (Florida) – guys he compares to Colson in many ways.
“I love him to death,” Shyatt says of Colson. “But I don’t want to just talk about the coaching career. I lost my father very early in my life, and while I was coaching at New Mexico he was there for me as both a mentor and a boss.
“I’ve been lucky. Gary Colson, Rick Barnes and Billly Dovovan definitely share one thing in common – that family, relationships and basketball are all intertwined. Don’t get me wrong, they all want to win badly. But they don’t mistreat people.”
Still fond of N.M.
Many of the relationships Colson formed in New Mexico have lasted until today. He says he gave a shooting clinic in Albuquerque a couple of years ago, and a number of his former players, including Kelvin Scarborough, Mike Winters, George Scott, Nelson Franse and Greene all sat in the front row while he was speaking.
“I just swelled up with pride,” he says. “They’re all successful and doing well. It was just great to see.”
Albuquerque attorney Mike Danoff, a friend of Colson’s since the early ’80s and a long-time AAU coach, says the Colson is “the consummate optimist, and he was always there to help our team.”
As far as his time in New Mexico, Colson says he’ll always wonder what would have happened had he had one more season. But that has never soured him on the Duke City itself.
“Do I ever think about it there?” he says, repeating the question. “Maybe every day. I could live there very easily. I still talk to Nelson Franse, Hunter, Scar, all those guys.
“I have a lot of fond memories of Albuquerque. I always will. It is just a great place, and those were some great years.”