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Grammer: Colson keeps it positive in remembering time as Lobos coach

Gary Colson doesn’t seem cut out for the world of social media.

Sure, he has a Twitter account, but not one he’s posted anything on in a year.

The 85-year-old former college basketball coach, including eight seasons rebuilding the UNM Lobos from the depths of a Lobogate scandal that led to NCAA probation, just can’t manage to suppress his appreciative disposition long enough to fire off the sort of angry, bitter, woe-is-me hot takes that fill today’s social media landscape.

Back in Albuquerque as the guest of honor at Wednesday’s Lobo basketball game against Green Bay, invited by current Lobos coach Paul Weir, Colson was absolutely on brand.

He was asked by reporters about how he was fired in 1988 despite five consecutive postseason appearances, albeit of the NIT variety and not the NCAA Tournament, and having stocked the cupboard for the 1988-89 season with potentially one of the program’s most talented rosters. All Colson could do was express gratitude for having been a small part of Lobo basketball history and having coached in the Pit.

“I came from Pepperdine where it’s a high school gym,” Colson said, referring to the first time he ever saw the arena now officially dubbed Dreamstyle Arena. “It just blew my mind.”

He said he hyperventilated in the atmosphere of his first Pit game as coach, which came one season after NCAA sanctions ravaged the program and led to a 6-22 season before Colson was hired.

Still, he recalls, the fans never wavered in their support.

Colson is now trying to reconcile that memory with what he sees of the current state of college athletics, and in Albuquerque in particular, where attendance is dropping and the unwavering support from Lobo fans isn’t what it once was for a team now in a five-year postseason drought.

“What bothers me a little bit is that the crowd – there’s too much negativity right now in the city,” Colson said. “I just spent a lot of time with Paul Weir. I’m telling you, this guy is good. I had an assistant named Larry Shyatt, who was the smartest guy that I’d ever worked with. … He’s right in the class (of) Larry Shyatt, Paul is. I hope you all give him a chance. I know I’m gonna do my part.”

He’s certainly done his part for the program before. Under his guidance, the Lobos played in five consecutive NITs and won 47 games his last two seasons before newly hired athletic director John Koenig, who was later charged with criminal offenses related to his time running the UNM Athletic Department, pushed Colson out to hire Dave Bliss.

“I went around the country and people said that was the worst scandal, the worst treatment I’ve ever heard a coach get,” Colson said. “And I said, ‘Timeout.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, well I went to Berkeley and met my wife, who I’ve been with for 35 years. Now, fate. If I hadn’t got fired by Koenig, would I have ever met her?

“So, I hate to tell you folks, but it was worth it. She’s wonderful.”

The roster Colson left behind had program legends Luc Longley, Rob Loeffel, Charlie Thomas and Rob Robbins already in house with point guard recruit Matt Othick already signed and the very real chance of his luring Brian Williams (later known in the NBA as Bison Dele) to Albuquerque. Othick and Williams instead ended up playing at Arizona and Bliss couldn’t capitalize on what Colson left behind.

Some may see a certain level of irony in Colson having been the coach hired to clean up one scandal only to be fired and replaced by Bliss, who later committed one of the worst sports scandals of all time at Baylor.

“Bliss and I talk from time to time,” Colson said. “I tried to pick him up (after he was banned by the NCAA). … Just like (Norm) Ellenberger. Ellenberger and I were friends.”

Watching the Bliss years eventually get Lobo basketball back to the NCAA Tournament and to levels he wasn’t able to never bothered Colson.

“I knew we did what we had to do,” Colson said. “You know, there’s a song ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles. It says take a bad song and make it better. I thought we came in here and took a bad situation and when we left, I thought it was better.”

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