ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Close to age 80, ex-Lobos coach Norm Ellenberger starts new job in New York
If you can make it in Watersmeet, Mich., you can make it anywhere, right?
So why not the Big Apple?
This week, former Lobo men’s basketball coach Norm Ellenberger hightails it from the Upper Peninsula wilderness to the Seat of the Empire State.
He heads from the preps to the pros, from a town with one traffic light to the lights of Broadway.
But he’ll still be doing what he’s always loved. Coaching hoop.
“After coaching a year in Watersmeet, that prepared me for New York City,” Ellenberger, 79, said with a chuckle. “Sure, New York’s got things we don’t have, but Whisenant said he’d take care of me.”
That would be John Whisenant, the general manager and head coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Earlier this month, he hired Ellenberger — his former boss at the University of New Mexico — as an assistant coach.
It’s a reunion more than three decades in the making.
“We’ve always stayed close,” said Whisenant, who lives in Albuquerque during the offseason. “It will be exciting to be back together, like the good old days. Basketball really hasn’t changed. It’s all about playing good defense, moving the ball on offense and not throwing the ball away. Norm has always emphasized those things, and has been a great coach at every level.”
Bob Toppert said it’s exciting to see the Lobo legends on the same staff again.
“The marriage is back together,” said Toppert, who played under Ellenberger and Whisenant in the early 1970s, and whose son Chad later played at UNM. “That is a whole lot of basketball knowledge there.
“But if they call and need another assistant, I refuse. I’m too old. Those guys? I think they coached dinosaurs.”
While there’s no official record of how the Whisenant-Ellenberger duo matched up against the legendary Flintstone-Rubble coaching tandem, the former led the Lobo men’s program to its most remarkable period.
For both good and bad reasons.
Ellenberger coached New Mexico from the 1972-73 through the 1978-79 seasons, with Whisenant as his top assistant for the first six of those seasons.
The colorful coach nicknamed Stormin’ Norman went 134-62 at UNM, won two Western Athletic Conference titles and grabbed two NCAA Tournament berths. His 1973-74 team was the first in Lobo history to win an NCAA Tournament game and is still one of only two squads (the other 1968) to make the final 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
“We also had the best uniforms in college basketball history,” Toppert says of the turquoise jerseys used during the Ellenberger era. “Everywhere we went on the road, people went crazy over those uniforms. They offered us money for our jerseys.”
Ellenberger’s 1977-78 squad — led by Michael Cooper, Marvin Johnson and Willie Howard — was ranked as high as No. 4 in the country, and is considered by most longtime Lobo fans to be the most talented in school history.
It was quite a period.
And then, there was Lobogate.
Ellenberger was fired in 1979 for a scandal that rocked college basketball, decimated the program and landed UNM on probation after a flurry of NCAA violations.
In 1981, Ellenberger was convicted on 21 of 22 counts of fraud and filing false travel vouchers in connection with the operation of the UNM program. But District Judge Phillip Baiamonte, calling Ellenberger a “victim of high-pressure college athletics,” placed Ellenberger on one year of unsupervised probation. In 1983, those convictions were formally dismissed and wiped from Ellenberger’s record.
The flashy and athletic Ellenberger, a guy who always has looked and acted much younger than his age, never went into hiding. But he never got another college head coaching job either.
He was a head coach of both the now-defunct Albuquerque Energee women’s pro team and Albuquerque Silvers men’s pro team. He served as a college men’s assistant under the late Don Haskins at UTEP and at Indiana under Bobby Knight. Ellenberger was also an NBA assistant with the Chicago Bulls under Tim Floyd.
But in 2003, Ellenberger felt the call of the wild.
The Indiana native, who always loved the outdoors, moved to Michigan, where he has coached high school basketball — both boys and girls — since. He has been at a number of schools, and this year led the Watersmeet Lady Nimrods to the Porcupine Mountain Conference title.
“It was a hell of a year — I think you’re talking to the Porcupine Mountain Conference coach of the year,” Ellenberger says with a laugh. “It’s self-proclaimed since we won the league. That probably loses a little bit (of luster) when a person thinks about it. But up here, it’s big.”
Ellenberger laughs a lot these days — always has, actually. But he says he’s having the time of his life in Watersmeet. He has a cabin in the wilderness and is surrounded by 24 square miles of lakes and streams.
“There are a number of little towns around,” he said, pausing to find a better spot for his cellphone reception. “They all need a coach. I really enjoy the heck out of it.
“It’s such a beautiful area. It’s like looking at a Christmas card.”
Ellenberger spends his days fishing from his canoe, chopping wood and living the life of a great outdoorsman. He is single but lives with a female “companion,” as he put it.
“When I get that thought, I go outside and jump in the cold lake,” he said. “That usually takes care of those thoughts.”
At nights — at least during the season — he jumps back into coaching basketball. He said he will return to Watersmeet after the WNBA season and coach high school ball again.
But now, his focus is on helping Whisenant build the Liberty into a league power.
“I just really appreciate the opportunity that coach Whiz is giving me,” Ellenberger said. “With what John’s accomplished with Sacramento and himself, he’s added so much to a league that needs personalities in it. The league was extremely happy to see him back coaching, and to be in a position as strong, league-wise, as New York.”
Whisenant, 67, coached the Sacramento Monarchs from the second half of the 2003 season through 2006, leading the Monarchs to the WNBA title in 2005. He quit coaching but remained as the team’s general manager in 2007 and 2008. But after the team got off to a poor start in 2009, he took over the coaching reins again.
The Monarchs folded after that season, and Whisenant was hired as coach and general manger of the Liberty last year, taking the team to the first round of the playoffs.
“The goal is to win it all,” Whisenant says. “That’s what we’re trying to build is a WNBA champion, and Norm can help us get there.
“When Norm came to New Mexico, he wanted to change the offensive image of New Mexico. He did that. We led the nation in scoring, and we were very creative on offense and played such great defense. I wanted that creativity with us.”
He’s still got it
Pat King, who played for UNM from 1972-75 and was later an assistant with the program, says Ellenberger remains one of the best coaches he has ever seen.
“He’s just top-notch,” King said. “He had a defensive philosophy, and he wanted things done a certain way or you didn’t play. It was survival of the fittest on our teams because all of the guys on the bench could really play, but he only played the guys who bought into his style. He was semi-light years ahead of most people with his pressure-style defense.”
Ellenberger and Whisenant say they will head to New York this week in preparation for the season, which begins with the WNBA draft April 16. The Liberty’s camp opens shortly thereafter. The season begins in mid-May, which is earlier than normal because there will be a one-month break (from mid-July to mid-August) for the Summer Olympics.
The regular season concludes Sept. 23.
The Liberty, 19-15 last season and two games out of first place in the Eastern Conference before losing in the first round of the playoffs to Indiana, should be a contender again.
Whisenant believes Ellenberger could help push the team over the top, and he’s not concerned that the former Lobos coach will turn 80 during the season.
“He’s just always been in tremendous shape. We both have been,” Whisenant said. “He’s never smoked, always worked out. And I don’t feel any different than I did 25 years ago — until I look in the mirror, of course.”
King said Ellenberger is “unbelievable — he’s like the fountain of youth.”
As far as the duo having longevity with the Liberty, Whisenant said he doesn’t think about that.
“We’re just going to take it one game at a time and one season at a time and see where it goes,” Whisenant said.
It’s gone quite well for Ellenberger much of the past 35 years — despite what happened way back at UNM.
Ellenberger said he doesn’t ever think about the “what ifs” from his Lobo days. He still has a lot of close friends in Albuquerque and “can make a phone call to get my green chile within a week any time I need it.”
Regrets? Maybe some.
Ill thoughts? Never.
“My thoughts and my feelings about New Mexico are always about wonderful fulfillment,” he said. “I have complete satisfaction and love, not only of Albuquerque but of the Southwest — especially built around Albuquerque and the university. All the other stuff, people will make from that what they want. I can’t add to it, I can’t subtract from it and I can’t change it. Let them do that.
“I’m completely satisfied within myself, and I have a wonderful feeling about the whole thing.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal