The Pit is the House that Lobo men’s basketball built.
Some fans might remember the first game ever played in the University Arena, aka the Pit. The date was Dec. 1, 1966.
It was an auspicious start for the Lobos. The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team defeated Abilene Christian 62-56, signaling a slew of thrilling victories for many seasons to come.
The first half-century of the Pit – through 2016 – is the subject of a new photograph-packed, fact-filled, large-format book, “50 Years at The Pit, the University of New Mexico’s Legendary Venue.” Gary Herron is the author and UNM Press is the publisher.
That very first game marked the beginning of decades of men’s basketball games, and later years of successful Lobo women’s basketball teams in the arena.
Other sports and non-sports events have also been held inside the Pit – New Mexico high school basketball playoff games, college volleyball, tennis and gymnastics exhibitions, bull riding competitions, concerts, UNM graduation ceremonies and the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow.
Some of the photographs in the book are of the arena’s $1.5 million initial construction and of subsequent renovations.
“The book isn’t a historical nonfiction volume about the Pit. It is more like a scrapbook of what’s happened at the Pit,” said Herron.
The Pit’s allure has drawn national recognition. Sports Illustrated named the Pit one of the country’s top 20 sports venues of the 20th century.
Raucous Lobo fans, growing in number from 1966, contributed to that recognition. Over the Pit’s first half century the Lobo men’s basketball team averaged 15,410 fans, Herron writes.
Previous Lobo home courts were considerably smaller in capacity. Before the the Pit, the men’s basketball team played in 6,332-seat Johnson Gym, on the main UNM campus, starting in 1957. Before the Johnson Gym era, the team’s home was Carlisle Gym, also on the main campus, beginning in 1928. Carlisle’s seating capacity was 2,010 seats.
Chapters in the book track some of the famous Lobo teams, players, coaches and broadcasters over the years.
There was Bob King, who coached the Lobo men’s team starting in the early 1960s and continued in the post through the team’s first six seasons in the Pit.
There was “Stormin’ ” Norman Ellenberger, who was the head coach from 1972-1979, after having served as a King assistant.
Herron does not gloss over Ellenberger’s troubles, notably a transcripts-rigging scandal known as Lobogate. Ellenberger was fired over the scandal.
Other coaches referenced included Gary Colson, Dave Bliss, Fran Fraschilla, Ritchie McKay, and Steve Alford.
Eight Lobo basketball players gained national attention by being first-round picks in the National Basketball Association draft. Those eight are Mel Daniels, Greg Howard, Luc Longley, Charles Smith, Kenny Thomas, Danny Granger, J.R. Giddens and Tony Snell.
Among other Lobos drafted by NBA teams were Michael Cooper, Darryl Minniefield, Kelvin Scarborough, Cameron Bairstow and Marvin “Automatic” Johnson.
Perhaps Johnson’s best-remembered game as a Lobo was on March 2, 1978. He scored 50 points in the Pit against Colorado State, breaking a UNM record.
The Pit became the home for Lobo women’s basketball program at the insistence of Don Flanagan, who became the head coach of the team in the mid-1990s.
The program became stronger – and drew new fans – under Flanagan’s leadership. His teams won five Mountain West Conference championships and had seven NCAA Tournament appearances, according to Herron’s book.
The book devotes one chapter to the memorable 1983 NCAA Final Four that was held in the Pit and dramatically won by North Carolina State. The Pit also was home to men’s and women’s NCAA basketball regionals.
The late Mike Roberts was the longtime radio broadcasters of Lobo sports, including men’s basketball games.
Former UNM basketball player Hunter Greene wrote the book’s foreword.
Herron has been a sports writer and editor in the Albuquerque area for more than 40 years. He’s been sports editor of the Rio Rancho Observer for the past 18 years and for nine years – 1979 to 1988 – he was the sports editor of the Valencia County News Bulletin.
Herron is one of the official scorers for the Albuquerque Isotopes and is the author of the books “Baseball in Albuquerque” and “Duke City Diamonds: Baseball in Albuquerque.”