People inclined to basketball are beginning to notice the scenery here again.
It has taken four years, but the University of New Mexico, torn and shaken by scandal, has returned to basketball grace. Four years after being stained by one of the worst academic and recruiting scandals in NCAA history, New Mexico is having fun again.
It is again being noticed as the school in one of America's most scenic cities, the one with a gym called "The Pit" that sits near the foot of the snow-capped Sandia Mountains, so named because they glow watermelon-red (sandia is Spanish for watermelon) at sunset.
It won 24 games last season, none of the victories tainted. It did it with a coach who took over after the scandal and within three years heard people calling for his job because he didn't win right away.
"When I first got here, one of the boosters walked up to me on my very first day and told me the only thing Norm (Ellenberger, the former coach) did wrong was to get caught," said the once-beleaguered Gary Colson. "He said, 'When you're ready to go after it, you just tell us.' "
Colson and Athletic Director John Bridgers set out to prove that the Lobos could win without cheating. After three years, the record was 39-44.
"It would have been ironic," Colson said, "if I had gotten fired for doing it right after Norm got fired for doing it wrong."
Instead, the Lobos went 24-11 last season, placed third in the Western Athletic Conference and after the NCAA snubbed them, went to the NIT, their first postseason play since the scandals. Now, Colson has lunch once a week with Ellenberger (who still is here coaching a Continental Basketball Association team) and says he understands what happened to him.
"College ball is all they have here," Colson said. "Norm just got caught up in the idea that if your buddy is doing something wrong, you have to do it to keep up. He won (134 of 196 games) but the school found out the hard way that wasn't the way to succeed in the long run."
Saturday, the Lobos take another step forward from the mire of 1979-80 when they host No. 1 Georgetown (WTTG-TV-5, 9 p.m.).
"I went out of town for a few days this summer thinking I had a game this weekend with Loyola of California," said Colson. "I came back home and they said, 'Guess what, you're playing Georgetown.' I may never leave town again."
Colson can afford to joke about the matchup because he has nothing to lose. The Lobos lost four starters off last season's team and have a 5-2 record after tonight's 59-58 victory over Arizona. Their best player is 6-foot-6 transfer Johnny Brown, who missed five games with a broken foot, then debuted with 26 points in an 87-72 victory over New Mexico State Monday.
Georgetown, led by Patrick Ewing (back from a slightly sprained hand), is 8-0.
"This team we have right now is a good two-year bet," Colson said. "Still, playing Georgetown is a great opportunity for us. We get national exposure, we make some money and we have nothing to lose."
The reason Colson knows his school will make money on the game is not the expected sellout (17,125), but Lorimar Production Inc. It was Lorimar's Russ Potts, the former Maryland assistant athletic director and later SMU athletic director, who put this match together.
Potts, after failing to match Georgetown with Indiana or Purdue in the Indianapolis Hoosierdome, offered Georgetown and New Mexico a guarantee, Georgetown getting the much bigger chunk. "I can't talk money," Potts told an inquirer. It is probably safe to assume that the Hoyas will receive at least $100,000. In return for the guarantees, the two schools turned the game over to Potts. The ticket sales ($15 a seat) are his, as are television revenues. The game is not part of New Mexico's season ticket package.
Colson really doesn't care what the details are. Just having the defending national champion coming in to play the Lobos is proof New Mexico has come almost all the way back. When Bridgers hired Colson, who is now 50, in 1980, he had just completed 11 successful seasons at Pepperdine in Malibu, one of the most gorgeous campuses in the country.
"Pepperdine's a great sports school, but even when we were winning 20 games in a season we would have 500 people at home games," Colson said. "There was a sameness to it all. When John called, all I could think of was The Pit and what it's like to play here. I jumped at the chance."
Saturday, The Pit will be jumping. Colson was not pleased at finding Arizona and Georgetown on his schedule on successive nights. But he couldn't quite suppress a grin when he talked about the weekend. The Sandias never have looked lovelier.