The Pit can be an intimidating place.
And when Eric Musselman, head coach of the No. 6 Nevada Wolf Pack talks about that fact, he’s not just playing the role of a visiting coach paying lip service to the storied basketball palace carved 37 feet into the New Mexico soil. That’s where his team takes on the UNM Lobos Saturday night at 6.
He’s lived it in a way just about nobody else has.
On Dec. 29, 1973, the run-and-gun Lobos, in the second season under a young, energetic, do-things-his-own-way coach named Norm Ellenberger, hosted the title game of the Lobo Invitational against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
On the opposing bench was the respected, up-and-coming 33-year-old basketball coach Bill Musselman. And sitting behind the opposing bench for the Christmas break tournament while school was out of session was 9-year-old Eric Musselman.
“I remember it well,” the Nevada coach said Friday.
How can’t he?
The boy not only looked up to his basketball-lifer father. He followed in his footsteps and became a professional coach by the age of 23, NBA coach by 37. Eric Musselman has guided Nevada from last season’s Sweet 16 into the national spotlight this season. This year’s team is 14-0, has a shot at an undefeated regular season and the hopes of an even deeper run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Yet on that cold December day in 1973, his visit to the Pit may have been memorable, but it is anything but a fond memory.
“Hopefully I won’t do what my dad did back when the University of Minnesota played there and Norm Ellenberger was coaching (the Lobos),” Musselman said. “He got thrown out in about four and a half minutes. I was probably in early grade school and remember walking up the tunnel with him.
“So, hopefully I’ll behave better than my dad did.”
Lest you think the memory of what happened 45 years ago might be a bit foggy, don’t.
The words in the following morning’s Albuquerque Journal on Dec. 30, 1973, written by Journal sports editor LeRoy Bearman, seem to back up the images burned into Eric Musselman’s mind of watching his dad get tossed out of a game in front of an announced Pit crowd of 15,300 hostile Lobo fans.
“The Lobos raced to a 14-2 lead and went on to a 102-68 victory over the Gophers, who were not only stunned by UNM’s pressure defense, but also by the ejection of their coach, Bill Musselman, when the game was only seven minutes and 13 seconds old.”
The Journal article later explained the elder Musselman had been called for three technical fouls in a span of 1 minute, 10 seconds — the second two coming while arguing the same call.
“All I said was ‘over and back’ about 15 times,” Bill Musselman told reporters after the game. “I had to protest for my kids.”
The article also quoted the Minnesota coach as saying that was the first time he had ever been ejected in a game and, in fact, had only ever received one technical as a coach prior to that day in the Pit.
As for what Eric Musselman remembers about walking up the Pit ramp with his dad, surely while being booed by the always welcoming Pit crowd, Bearman’s article later summed up that exit thusly:
“For all practical purposes, the outcome had been decided when Musselman was ejected as the Lobos had an 18-3 lead.
“Mark Saiers then put in all four of the technical foul shots allotted the Lobos on the ejections, as Musselman walked out of the arena with his wife and young son.”
Should history repeat itself on Saturday, there is no word yet if Nevada graduate assistant coach Michael Musselman will escort his dad up the Pit ramp after an ejection.