ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —
Not exactly words often used to describe the Pit.
And certainly not the words used to describe the three tumultuous seasons coached at the University of New Mexico by the high-energy, basketball-savvy New Yorker Fran Fraschilla.
And yet, it was inside the storied arena that Fraschilla fondly remembers finding tranquility, escaping from the noise and stress of what grew into a disappointing coaching tenure with the Lobos from 1999 through 2002 – an era derailed by player defections and suspensions, bad breaks, close calls and unfulfilled promises.
“Every now and then when I wanted to get out of the office,” Fraschilla recalled, “I would just walk into the arena, clear my head and sit down and look out there and think, ‘Wow, what a spectacular place this is.’ ”
The 54-year-old Fraschilla, who has found his niche as an international and college basketball analyst for ESPN since parting ways with UNM in March 2002, acknowledged that his run as the Lobos 17th head basketball coach was “a disappointment.”
But that doesn’t change his fondness of the program, the Pit, Albuquerque and of the fans.
Dave Bliss rode Kenny Thomas and Co. to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments in the late 1990s, and parlayed that success into a gig at Baylor that nearly doubled his salary.
And when Bliss skipped town, UNM athletic director Rudy Davalos, a well-connected member of the NCAA selection committee, didn’t have to look far to find a replacement that drew rave reviews from the college basketball world.
“The basketball people I was close to at that time – (Kentucky athletic director) C.M. Newton, who was chair of the basketball committee, and Terry Holland, who was a great coach at Virginia, and (ESPN’s) Dick Vitale – those people were really, really high on him,” Davalos said. “They thought he was one of the best recruiters in the country.”
Newton told the Journal that Fraschilla would have been on his short list if there were an opening at the time.
“If I were looking for a guy at Kentucky,” Newton said in 1999, “one guy who would be in my top three is Fran Fraschilla.”
Fraschilla at the time was bouncing around between radio and television gigs, and also working as a scout for the New York Knicks a season after being forced out at St. John’s after just two seasons. Between 1992 and 1998, Fraschilla took Manhattan to the NCAA Tournament twice and St. John’s once and was considered by many to be well-connected in the recruiting scene.
There was no doubt he was considered one of the sport’s hot up-and-coming coaches and he didn’t hide his New York bravado when he was handed the keys to the Lobos program.
“Frankly, some day my goal is I want the Lobos to play in the Final Four,” Fraschilla told the Journal . “I want them to dream that dream with me.”
Those expectations weren’t squelched when Fraschilla brought his first Lobos team into Tucson and knocked off the No. 2-ranked Arizona Wildcats in December 1999, the last time the two teams have played.
Later that season UNM beat a ranked Utah team in the Pit en route to an 18-14 record (9-5 in the inaugural season of the Mountain West Conference) and a second-round run in the NIT.
“The first year, I thought he did a really good coaching job,” Davalos said. “I thought that was one of the better coaching jobs around because he didn’t really have that much material. He went over and beat Arizona, which was a big upset. … He was left with a very average team (after Bliss left). They weren’t that good and he had them playing really well.”
That doesn’t surprise former Lobo Senque Carey, one of several highly sought recruits and transfers who added buzz around Albuquerque as Fraschilla began to stockpile talent.
“If you look at Coach Fran’s history,” Carey said, “he always did more with less. Less-talented players, he’d get them to overachieve. When he had a lot of talent, I think some of the undiscipliness of some kids’ character painted a false picture of him. He had some really undisciplined kids that really didn’t abide by what he stood for. He always did more with less.”
Clash of styles?
Fraschilla never had a problem recruiting in New York. His teams had talent and even the St. John’s team he left behind went to the Elite Eight with his players.
But he said he changed his ways early on at UNM, feeling the pressure to maintain the program’s run of four straight NCAA berths.
“Early on, I definitely settled for less than high-character guys and that was my fault,” Fraschilla said. “I had never coached those kind of guys at Manhattan and St. Johns. In that regard, I think I let Rudy down. We were so conscious of keeping the program at a high level that I almost wish I would have started over and just told people, ‘Hey, look, it’s going to be a couple years. Just let me get my own guys.’
“By the time I started to get my own guys – really good guys, like the kids I mentioned – I think it was already too late.”
But some players will tell you it wasn’t just the character of the recruits that led to chemistry issues in the locker room.
Five players left the program by the end of Fraschilla’s first season – R.T. Guinn, Rafael Berumen, John Robinson, Kevin Henry and Attila Cosby. While Cosby was a Fraschilla recruit who left on good terms, the other four were Bliss recruits who took shots at Fraschilla in some form on their way out.
His style of coaching, Davalos said, wouldn’t have been so frowned upon had the wins been there.
“They say Nick Saban is tough as heck,” Davalos said. “They don’t question you when you’re winning national championships.”
Carlos Griego, who has worked as a team manager or video coordinator for Bliss, Fraschilla, Ritchie McKay, Steve Alford and even a season for ex-UNM women’s coach Don Flanagan, said Fraschilla’s tactics seemed to fall flat, even in the good times.
“Sometimes he’d punch a ball in practice or something like that, but every coach does that,” Griego said. “Ritchie did it. Steve did it. The difference is Fran’s guys didn’t respond. They just didn’t care. Some of those guys were just in it to get their stipend check and get with girls.”
Ruben Douglas, who left Arizona to play for the Lobos because he believed in the direction the program, said the vision Fraschilla shared with him never materialized once he got to Albuquerque.
“It was night and day,” Douglas said of comparing the Arizona and UNM programs. “We did have chemistry issues. Everybody was on their own page.”
The difference between Fraschilla being viewed as a bad fit for New Mexico and as a long-term coach, Davalos said, was determined in just a few pivotal moments.
Fraschilla won big recruiting wars when he landed junior college transfers such as 7-foot center Moustapha Diagne and 6-7 forward Malcolm Battles. Diagne may be most remembered for riding an exercise bike near the bench during games to help the circulation in a bad foot that never allowed him to develop into what some thought was an NBA talent.
“Had Moustapha been healthy,” Fraschilla said, “it could have changed things.”
Battles, meanwhile, was dismissed from the team in February 2001 after being arrested and charged with abusing his girlfriend.
In 2001, despite losing their final three games of the regular season, things seemed to change in the Mountain West tournament for the Lobos.
UNM knocked off Colorado State and Utah to reach the title game against BYU.
Had it not been for a missed Marlon Parmer 3-pointer late in the championship game against the Cougars, the Lobos would have been in the NCAA Tournament in Fraschilla’s second season, a feather in the cap that likely would have kept him in Albuquerque for years.
“Those three games (in the MWC tournament), it felt like we were a team,” Griego remembered. “It was like we were focused. I remember those pep talks that coach (Darren) Savino gave – he was just so fired up. He asked, ‘Are you guys going to quit now? We can do this.’ I remember that first game and the guys came out of the locker room and it was like ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ ”
The Lobos went on to the NIT where they won two games, including a victory over a Bliss-coached Baylor squad in the Pit.
“Those three days in Vegas and then the NIT games,” Griego said, “I remember thinking if this is what it’s going to be like, we’re going to be good.”
The following season, UNM was 10-3, including a sweep of New Mexico State, when it hosted No. 18 Gonzaga in the Pit on Jan. 7, 2002.
Douglas, a career 83 percent free throw shooter at UNM, missed a pair of technical foul free throws with 7 seconds remaining that would have likely beaten the Bulldogs. Instead, the game went to overtime and UNM lost 95-90.
Davalos remembered Parmer going into the locker room after the game and tearing into teammates – a sign of things to come.
“It was a turning point for us,” Carey said of the Gonzaga loss. “That would have been big for us. Losing brings out people’s character more than winning. When you win, everything is good. You don’t see or pay attention to the majority of the bad frowns out there. But when you’re losing, everything comes to the surface.”
Parmer was contacted for this article but said he was not interested in commenting on his time at UNM.
A week after the Gonzaga loss, the Lobos were booed heavily in the Pit while struggling to beat Air Force. Fraschilla at one point told a referee the Lobos were patriotic, too, and to stop giving the military academy preferential calls because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that happened just four months prior.
He apologized three days later.
“I think what happened is he lost some players,” Davalos said. “It put pressure on him and I think he reacted in some ways that really weren’t always good.”
On Jan. 21, 2002, the Lobos lost by 30 points in the Pit to Utah, one of the worst losses in Pit history. Parmer was kicked off the team the next day, bringing to nine the number of scholarship players that left or were kicked off the team in Fraschilla’s era as coach.
“If I were smart, I would have kept him on the team until the end of the year and we would have won a few more games and I would have said, ‘Hey, I think you need to turn pro,’ ” Fraschilla said. “And I didn’t. I was a hard head. I said, ‘You know what? I can’t take this anymore.’ We had all had enough of him. He wasn’t necessarily a bad kid, but at that time, he was very immature. He was not very well-liked on the team.
“The point is if I were smart, I would have just milked it until the end of the year and hung in there with him, but those are the decisions you make. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they don’t work out. I know we weren’t the same team talent-wise without him.”
On Feb. 9, Lobo Patrick Dennehy shoved teammates and stormed off the court during a 47-44 loss in Colorado Springs to Air Force.
“I’m like, ‘We’re losing to the most unathletic team in NCAA history. This is ridiculous,’ ” Douglas remembered of the surreal nature of that Air Force loss. “Then dudes are just acting up, throwing tantrums and walking to the locker room. I was like this is crazy. This doesn’t make any sense to me. We aren’t going to get too far like this.”
The Lobos lost in the opening round of the MWC tournament to UNLV then were blasted 96-62 at Minnesota in the opening round of the NIT to finish the season 16-14 after their 10-3 start.
After a meeting with Davalos, Fraschilla agreed to resign March 17, 2002.
It wasn’t a surprise.
“It all kind of snowballed for him,” Douglas said. “You could see the end was near.”
Found his niche
Life after UNM didn’t have Fraschilla looking for work long.
He moved to Dallas, the hometown of his wife, Meg. He was able to watch his sons, Matthew and James – who Pit dwellers may remember as the little Lobo mascot at home games – grow up.
Fraschilla was still regarded as a great basketball mind and ESPN offered him a college basketball analyst job in 2003, which he’s held since.
It was in December 2003 when Fraschilla the color analyst interviewed Indiana coach Bob Knight and Iowa coach Steve Alford about a rift some thought the two were having as opposing coaches in the Big Ten.
Fraschilla asked Alford a question about the matter.
“Let me answer that,” Knight interrupted, before tearing into the sports media in general. Included in the Knight tirade was, “All you media people can go (expletive) yourself.”
Fraschilla’s tenure at ESPN has been widely regarded as a success. He is the network’s go-to guy on NBA Draft night for scouting international players (international basketball “has been a hobby of mine for years,” Fraschilla said) and still works basketball camps in the United States and around the world. He’s also called hundreds of college basketball games through the years and even said he’d love to return to the Pit one day.
“I’ve got the best job in the world because I’m a basketball junkie and I’m literally around the game 12 months a year,” Fraschilla said.
While he said he’s turned down “an average of one coaching job a year since I left New Mexico,” Fraschilla said that has died off in recent seasons as athletic directors now realize he enjoys his ESPN job so much.
After the dust had settled from his time at UNM, Fraschilla met with Davalos.
“He came in to see me about two years after he had lost his job, which is very unusual for a coach to come back after you terminate him,” Davalos said. “But he came in and he sat down in my office and said, ‘I’m really sorry, I disappointed you. … I thought we were going to do real well. I made some mistakes and we got some bad breaks, but I appreciate your support.’ ”
While Fraschilla does regret not doing more homework on whether he’d be the right fit for the job prior to accepting the position in 1999 (he took the job having never been to the UNM campus), he doesn’t feel any bitterness about his time at UNM.
“When I see a game on TV and I see the crazy fans down there and I see Snake still bugging the opposing coach, I kind of smile,” Fraschilla said. “Like I said, if it weren’t for my time at New Mexico, I may not have gotten the opportunity to work at ESPN. So in many ways, things always kind of work out for a reason. I don’t know if I feel like I let Rudy down as I feel like I let a lot of fans down because of how passionate they are.”