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Harrison, popular Lobos coach in 6-22 season, dies

Charlie Harrison, shown working the sidelines during a 73-70 home loss to Utah on Jan. 5, 1980, bridged the gap between the Norm Ellenberger and Gary Colson eras for UNM hoops. The former Lobos coach died earlier this week at age 70. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal File)

If ever there was a season to forget in modern Lobo basketball lore, it would seem the team’s 6-22 campaign in 1979-80 would have been the one, right?

And yet, somehow, the only Lobos team in the past 58 seasons to fail to reach double digit victories, a team that took the court with just four scholarship players after the FBI-led “Lobogate” scandal broke as the team was boarding an airplane for its season opener, managed to nestle its way fondly into the hearts of old school Lobo faithful.

The reason was Charlie Harrison, who despite coaching the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team for only one season four decades ago, is remembered fondly for the mark he left on the program.

On Monday, Harrison died at his home in North Carolina where he lived with his wife, Guiselle. He was 70.

East Carolina University, where Harrison was head coach from 1982 through 1987, announced Harrison’s passing on its athletics department website on Tuesday. No cause of death was revealed.

Former Lobo basketball coach Charlie Harrison retired in his native North Carolina and died on Monday, (Journal file)

“Coach Harrison took the helm of the Lobos at a critical point in school history,” current UNM coach Paul Weir said Wednesday in an email to the Journal. “Although I never met him I have consistently heard from our fans the admiration they have for the job he did leading our beloved basketball program. All of us here in the athletic department share our thoughts and prayers with Coach and his family right now.”

Harrison, the then 29-year-old Lobos assistant coach under the wildly popular Norm Ellenberger, was thrown into the fire as interim head coach during one very unexpected phone call from UNM president Bud Davis on Nov. 31, 1979.

“Dr. Davis called me and told me I was going to take the team because Norm had been suspended,” Harrison told the Journal in a 2013 interview, adding that the only reason he wasn’t yet on the team’s plane to Colorado for their season opener that day was because he “had gone back to the office to get a projector and some cans of film” for scouting.

Harrison wasn’t left with much that season after Ellenberger and several players left. At points, UNM held in-season walk-on tryouts and used players from other Lobo sports.

As reported in that 2013 Journal profile of Harrison:

“By the time the Dec. 8 New Mexico State game in Las Cruces arrived, Harrison was left with only four scholarship players to take on Slab Jones and company.

“He recruited a couple of football players and a student manager to fill out the roster.

“And, somehow, New Mexico was ahead of the Aggies 40-33 at halftime. … The Lobos lost 68-58, but they had served notice. LSU assistant coach Art Tolis, who was scouting the game at the Pan American Center, called it ‘one of the most courageous games I’ve seen in 22 years of coaching.'”

Harrison, however, was never one to look for sympathy about the team’s challenges that season.

“We came to win and we didn’t win, so I’m mad as hell,” he said after the game.

That attitude, and the no excuses mindset his undermanned team took on that season, not only made that 1979-80 team a mere placeholder team, bridging the Ellenberger era to the Gary Colson era of the ’80s, but managed to keep a rabid fan base showing up every night, early 15,000 strong that season.

“I was a freshman that year and have never enjoyed BB more,” longtime Lobo basketball fan Charles Gibbons, who now lives in Texas, posted on Twitter Wednesday.

Gibbons, later speaking to the Journal about his memories of Harrison, said of that freshman year at UNM that he was “happy to finally boo in person Don Haskins and UTEP and also BYU.”

The Lobos lost 75-63 to the Danny Ainge-led BYU Cougars that season in the Pit and 68-67 to Haskins’ Miners on the final day of the season.

It didn’t matter.

“Charlie Harrison played with what he had to the best of his ability,” Gibbons said. “Although they won 6 games, they were hard- fought and exciting. Charlie had the Pit on his side and he used it.”

The 1979-80 Lobos were led on the court by Kenny Page, one of the Lobos all-time great scorers, whose 784 points and 28.0 scoring average under Harrison’s guidance remain the all-time single season records at UNM.

Harrison, who was a part of the Bobby Knight coaching tree after assistant coaching stops with Indiana, Oklahoma and with the NBA’s Buffalo Braves, went on to be a two-year assistant at Iowa State after his season in Albuquerque and then was a five-season coach at ECU. He later went into private business in his home state of North Carolina.

Of his brief stint at UNM, Harrison told the Journal in 2013, “The people of New Mexico were awfully kind to me. I’m humbly thankful for that year.”

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