On what was likely the greatest night in Albuquerque sports history because of a pair of incredible victories, the city, the state and the Lobo basketball program also suffered one of its biggest losses.
On Saturday night, in his cabin in Watersmeet, Mich., former legendary Lobo basketball coach Norm Ellenberger died in his sleep, according to his best friend, retired Albuquerque dentist Bob Briggs.
“It’s really something,” Briggs told the Journal on Sunday morning with a sigh. “The city had two of its best wins in history — and one of its worst losses — all in one night.”
Ellenberger died in his sleep at age 83 after a series of heart ailments. He had lived in the area for nearly two decades, doing what he loved most — fishing and coaching.
It has been decades since the flamboyant and charismatic Ellenberger coached the New Mexico Lobo men’s basketball team through an electric era that will likely never be reproduced.
Not in New Mexico. Maybe, not anywhere.
“He was so intense, and he just loved to play for the crowds,” said former Lobo great Marvin Johnson of playing for Ellenberger. “It was just a different time, and that Pit was crazy.”
UTEP coach Tim Floyd — a former assistant with the Miners during Ellenberger’s heyday at Loboland, told the Journal, “In those days, we had all these coaches with big personalities. They entertained as well as coached, and were measured by the number of people along with wins. We haven’t seen anything like that since.
“Guys like Bobby Knight, Gene Keady, even Don Haskins in his own way,” Floyd said, “and Norm was the most flamboyant of them all. It was truly the golden age of college basketball. What he did for that city and that program was amazing.”
What Ellenberger did was energize a city via sports.
What he also did was land the program on probation for one of the biggest scandals in college sports to that point.
Ellenberger coached New Mexico from the 1972-73 through the 1978-79 seasons.
The man 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.
But he was also in charge when Lobogate destroyed the program. Ellenberger was fired in 1979 after the Lobos were put 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.
Still, Ellenberger never had another head college job.
But he never stopped coaching.
He was head coach of the Albuquerque Energee women’s pro team and Albuquerque Silvers men’s pro team. He was an assistant under the late Haskins at UTEP and for Knight at Indiana, both his close friends. He was also an NBA assistant with the Chicago Bulls under Floyd.
After that, he moved to the Wisconsin/Michigan area, where he coached numerous prep teams — both boys and girls.
“He simply loved coaching,” said Lori Sharrow, Ellenberger’s girlfriend the past eight years and a nurse practitioner. “He just signed on as an assistant last week at another high school here. It meant so much to him to be able to work with kids.
“Norm is the most special person I’ve ever met. I really don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”
Sharrow, 51, who met Ellenberger when he was coaching her son, Peter, in high school, said Ellenberger moved in to her house in Minocqua, Wis., about a year ago after heart surgery. On Saturday, however, they went to check on his cabin in Watersmeet.
“It was just the perfect day,” she said. “We had a wonderful dinner at the cabin, there was a wonderful sunset and we built a fire. We prayed together, he always thanked God for having another day.
“I woke up suddenly during the night and turned to give him a hug,” she said, choking back tears. “I tried to wake him, but he had slipped away.”
Peter Shallow said the two years that he played for Ellenberger at Northland Pines High in Eagle River, Wis. — one of a number of high schools Ellenberger coached at in the area — the team struggled through a pair of losing seasons.
“But it was such a great learning experience,” Peter said. “Norm didn’t just teach me about basketball, he taught me about life. I ended up playing two years at a JUCO, and I owe that all to Norm.”
Ellenberger certainly touched a great many folks in Albuquerque, and left the area with hundreds upon hundreds of friends and thousands upon thousands of loyal who still consider him the best coach in Lobo history.
“Norm is just family to me, we’ve been like brothers,” Briggs said. “I’ve known for a year and a half this day was coming, but there is no way to prepare. I’m just devastated. We lost a really, really tremendous man. People who really don’t know Norm, don’t really know all that he was about.”
Many, however, do.
“He was such a showman,” Floyd said. “He always gave the fans what they wanted, and they loved that; the shirts unbuttoned to the navel and the turquoise around his neck.
“But when you were with him one-on-one, he wasn’t anything like that. He was not about attention at all. He was always asking, ‘How are you doing?’ He always wanted to know what was going on in your life.”
Ron Nelson, a senior All-American at UNM when Ellenberger started at the school as an assistant under Bob King in the 1967-68 season, said his first memory of Ellenberger will last a lifetime.
“Coach King sent me to pick him up at his apartment on campus. I knocked, then yelled at the open door, ‘Hey, are you here?'” Nelson said. “There’s Norm, sunbathing on the patio. I said, ‘I’m gonna’ like this guy. I can tell right away.’
“Norm was the most personable guy I’ve ever known. He had more friends than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Albuquerque native Gavin Maloof, former co-owner of the NBA Sacramento Kings and Monarchs, said, “My dad (the late George Maloof Sr.) just loved Norm; we all did. He was one of the best coaches UNM has ever had; very knowledgeable, really an expert. He was so flamboyant. Bob King put Lobo basketball on the map, but Norm just took it to another level.”
Maloof and his brother Joe thought so much of Ellenberger and his former UNM staff, they hired ex-Ellenberger assistant John Whisenant as coach of the Sacramento Monarchs, and the man known as “Whiz” led the team to a WNBA title.
Whisenant later hired his former mentor as his assistant when he was head coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
“He just had a great basketball mind,” Whisenant said of Ellenberger. “And he was a great friend. This is really a tough day. I wasn’t ready for it. We talk every week or two, and he was still working out at the gym three times a week.
“I don’t think there will ever be another era in New Mexico like the one with Norm. The competition was far superior in the league then with teams like Arizona and Arizona State, Utah and BYU and Haskins at UTEP. So that always brought the best out of the fans. The competition has really been watered down now.
“When I coached with Norm here, for seven years and about 140 games, I only remember one game that wasn’t sold out. It was a snowy, slick night and we were playing some Division II team. We still had 15(000) or 16,000. The fan enthusiasm was tremendous, because the league being better, the Pit being different and because of Norm.
“There’s only one Norm.”
In 2013, Ellenberger told the Journal he made no excuses for how his time at UNM ended, and he held no grudges.
“It truly was a wonderful experience,” he said. “When I left there, part of me stayed there. I’ve got some really good friends there and a lot of great memories.
“I’m completely satisfied within myself of my time there. There are no bad feelings. Those were some great, great years and I’ll always feel that way.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2013, the Journal’s sports staff published a nine-part series on the DNA of Lobo Basketball, including an in-depth article on the coaching tenure of Ellenberger written by Asst. Sports Editor Mark Smith. Here is that article: Lobos went Stormin’ with Norman