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Sunday, September 19, 1999
Coach Made Lobo Basketball
By Mark Smith
Journal Staff Writer
Hollywood could never do it justice.
Rows upon rows of red-clad zealots, many times numbering 18,000-plus, stomping, barking and generally raising the roof when their beloved University of New Mexico men's basketball team takes to the Pit floor.
It's a common sight during the season, one that's expected.
There was a time, however, when Lobo basketball didn't create such madness. That was before Bob King arrived in New Mexico from Iowa and coached UNM into Lobomania, a phenomenon that eventually built the cavernous hole known as the Pit in 1966.
Before King, the program was as dismal and barren as Albuquerque's Northeast Heights was.
In the early 1960s, Albuquerque was about one-fourth its current size, and everything east of Wyoming Boulevard was basically dirt.
So were the Lobos.
"Winning was a foreign concept at New Mexico," says Skip Kruzich, a Lobos guard who helped change all of that.
From the 1959-60 through 1961-62 seasons, the records were atrocious: 6-19, 6-17 and 6-20.
And those were the good years.
Before that, UNM had marks of 3-19, 3-21, 5-20, 6-16 and 7-17 in successive years.
From 1947 through 1962, the Lobos, playing most of that time in tiny Carlisle Gym, had just two winning seasons -- barely (13-11 in 50-51 and 12-11 in 53-54).
Woody Clements, Berl Huffman, Bill Stockton, Bob Sweeney -- it mattered little; none could coach the Lobos into college basketball respectability.
None, that is, until the man with the regal name and a noble dream came along to lift Lobo basketball to royal status.
"Bob King. He is truly the king of Lobo basketball," says J.D. Kailer, a longtime member of the Albuquerque media who was the Journal's sports editor when King, then an assistant coach at Iowa, replaced Sweeney at UNM in 1962.
"Bob King was the reason I came to New Mexico," said former UNM great Ira Harge. "I knew him in Iowa, where he was an assistant. I didn't worry about the past records (at UNM). I really liked Bob King and his family. I believed in him."
So did Kruzich, Claude Williams, Joe McKay and Santa Fe's Mike Lucero, who along with Harge carried that 1962-63 team, King's first at UNM.
"I thought we should be able to build something," King said. "We had a nice facility, not very big, but nice with the student body close. The student body seemed to be very enthusiastic about their football and other sports. I thought, if we could just get a good ballclub, the support would be there."
They did, and it was.
The Lobos went 16-9 that season and turned the corner. That bunch gained respectability, and just one year later took it much further.
In 1963-64, McKay, a senior the year before, was replaced in the starting lineup by junior college transfer Dick Ellis -- the only change in the starting five. The Lobos won their first six games, then took a huge 59-54 victory over Kansas at Johnson Gym.
"If you ask everyone on the team, you might get a different response from each," said Kruzich, who still makes his home in Albuquerque. "But that win over Kansas was the big one. It was an unlikely victory, and it put stamp on the fact that we could play."
While that game may not have marked the birth of Lobomania, it, most likely, was the conception.
The Lobos lost their next game, 56-55 at Washington University in St. Louis but reeled off four straight wins before falling at Utah 67-65.
Again the Lobos won four straight games before another heartbreaking defeat, 62-60 at home against Texas Western (which eventually became Texas-El Paso).
All the while attendance had been growing. "Just two years earlier, crowds of 600 or 800 were common," Kailer said. "Now they were filling Johnson Gym, which had a capacity of about 7,100."
Said Mel Daniels, a star for the Lobos from 1964-65 through 1966-67, "Bob King made Lobo basketball, he and that bunch his first year."
That bunch was 17-3 when it lost at Arizona State 47-45. A 54-46 loss the next night at Arizona was its worst of the 1963-64 regular season.
The Lobos closed the regular season with four straight wins, capped by a 93-65 rout of the Utes in Albuquerque to finish 21-5 and 7-3 in the Western Athletic Conference, good for a co-championship with ASU.
UNM then had to make a choice.
"Coach King had a meeting and said we had an option," Kruzich said. "We could play it off (with ASU), the winner going to the NCAA Tournament. But if we went to the NCAAs, we wouldn't have been able to use Dick Ellis, because he was a junior college transfer and (jucos) were ineligible for the tournament in those days. So even if we would have won, we would have lost. It was pretty much unanimous; we chose the NIT."
The National Invitation Tournament was a different animal in those days. Only eight teams were invited to the prestigious event, held entirely in New York City.
The Lobos beat Drake 65-60 in the first game and shocked New York University 72-65 in the semifinals.
"I thought the people in New York were crazy," Harge said. "As we were walking off the court, they called us everything. I'd never heard those kind of names. We weren't supposed to win, and they were vehement. One guy, slobbering and foaming at the mouth, came up to us and was going nuts."
New York fans weren't the only ones. Back home it was pretty wild as well.
"Albuquerque went crazy," Kailer said. "During the game, you could have rolled a bowling ball down Central from Yale to the underpass and not hit a thing. Everyone was glued to their radio.
"When they beat NYU, it was unbelievable. Everyone was on the streets. The town exploded. People were screaming and honking horns; it was truly incredible."
The joy was seemingly short- lived. In the championship game, Bradley thrashed UNM 86-54.
The players didn't expect much of a welcome home, and certainly didn't anticipate what came next.
"I don't know how many people there were. It was incredible," Harge said of that stormy day in Albuquerque when the team returned home. "It was like a 30- or 50-mph dust storm. I couldn't see because there was so much dirt in my eyes. But I could hear the voices. There were people everywhere. They made a line all the way from the old airport at Gibson, all along Yale to Johnson Gym."
Said Kruzich, "I was absolutely shocked, because we lost. If you win that's one thing. We were in New York and really didn't know what was happening back here."
It was a day that brought tears to the eyes of many, and not just because of the flying dirt.
The gloomy Lobo basketball days were left in the dust.
"It was a blinding dust storm, maybe the worst I've ever seen," Kailer said. "But here were these 5,000 people at that little old airport. The crowd was so big, they had to stop the plane and let everyone out away from the terminal...
"That is when Lobo basketball came to be."
Added King, who is now retired and living in Albuquerque, "The airport was rather small, but boy, there were people everywhere ... that many on a day like that was exciting."
Lobomania grew from there. UNM started the next season with an 18-2 record before finishing 19-8, losing its last five games, including the first round of the NIT.
Still, tickets became a precious commodity and prices increased. In 1966, many more seats were available as the Pit was unveiled.
In just a few years the program went from having a few hundred fans in Johnson Gym to packing the then 15,000-seat Pit.
"It was a vision of (UNM president) Tom Popejoy, (UNM athletic director) Pete McDavid and (architect) Joe Boehning," Kailer said of the Pit, which was completed in December 1966 for $1.5 million. "It all came about because of what Bob King did for Lobo basketball."
UNM kept rolling and the fans kept pouring through the turnstiles.
Lobo basketball had become king of the New Mexico sports scene -- thanks to a guy from Iowa with an apropos name and a group of guys who believed in him.
Mark Smith is the Journal's beat writer for the University of New Mexico's men's basketball team.