FOR THE FOURTH time in the last five years, UTEP finds itself in the championship game of
the WAC basketball tournament. The Miners, who won titles in 1984 and 1987 and placed second in 1985 and 1988, beat New Mexico last night in the Huntsman Center, 89-57,to advance into tonight's final game. The game was surprisingly lop-sided for a semifinal, but then again, the Miners had a stronger bench.
First, they had Don Haskins, their head coaching fixture for the past 28 years, and next to Haskins there was his first assistant, Norm Ellenberger, who is hardly your average, paying-his-dues, waiting-for-his-break assistant coach.
Ellenberger has been, as they say, around.
The last time Ellenberger was running a team as the head coach was when he was known as Stormin' Norman and he never had to pay retail for anything in Albuquerque, especially not for turquoise jewelry.
Ellenberger was the Duke of Albuquerque. He was more popular than the mayor and the governor. Amazingly, it's been 10 years now since his era came to an end at the University of New Mexico. He was the Lobos' head coach from 1972-73 through 1978-79, a seven-season span that saw UNM win two WAC championships, post an overall 134-62 record, send Michael Cooper to the Lakers, and send New Mexico basketball stock platinum.
To this day, the five largest crowds in the New Mexico Pit are from the Ellenberger Era.
The era ended when political writers started covering the program more than sports writers. Ellenberger was indicted by a grand jury and convicted of falsifying expense accounts and players' transcripts. Both the coach and the program were put on probation, respectively.
Winning covers a multitude of sins, but these weren't on the list.
Ellenberger was released of his duties.
He kicked around Albuquerque for a time, getting jobs in the Women's Basketball League - where he coached Machine Gun Molly Bolin - and the CBA, until the Albuquerque Silvers left for somewhere else.
Then, three seasons ago, he got back into the college game, joining Haskins at UTEP.
Haskins and Ellenberger had developed a friendly competitive rivalry during the seven years they coached against each other in the league. Once, when they were facing each other in Albuquerque and the game had turned sloppy, they met at midcourt, talked it over, and switched benches.
Not only did Haskins like Ellenberger's style, he was also aware that in their head-to-head matchups over those seven years, Ellenberger and the Lobos prevailed 9-5.
When Ellenberger asked to be a nonpaid volunteer coach prior to the 1986-87 season, Haskins reacted like someone who just won the lottery.
Ellenberger worked as a volunteer for two seasons. Then, prior to this season, he was officially hired and given his first college paycheck since 1979. He remains on probation only to the extent that he is prohibited from recruiting.
He is given extensive coaching responsibilities by Haskins, above and beyond the normal assistant coaches' duties.
As a result, the Miners not only have the alltime winningest coach in the history of the WAC (that's Haskins, whose 539-231 28-year record translates to a .700 winning percentage and six conference championships), but they also have the No. 3 winningest coach in WAC history (that's Ellenberger, whose 134-62, .684 at UNM over seven years accounted for two championships).
It was no wonder last night that members of the UTEP band gloated when they held up a sign in the direction of the Lobos' fans that said, "We've Got Norm - You Lose!"
Their gesture was done before the 42-point rout and can therefore be considered prophetic.
Ellenberger got little attention from the New Mexico fans in attendance, although his receptions in Albuquerque the past three years have reportedly been enthusiastic - both ways. He remains as notorious in the badlands as Billy the Kid. "They either love him or they hate him," said Phill Casaus of the Albuquerque Journal. "He's either booed or he's cheered."
"When I walk down that ramp to The Pit," said Ellenberger last night, "I still get goose bumps on my arm and the hair stands out on my neck. I hope that never changes. It's a wonderful, wonderful place."
But, beyond that, he doesn't dwell on Albuquerque or New Mexico. "That was another time in my life," he said. "I don't think about it much. Maybe I've made a point not to."
Together with Haskins, they've gone 71-23 the past three years, and 34-14 in the WAC. This year they're 24-6 and undoubtedly headed for the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive season, no matter what happens tonight.
"He deserves another head job," said Bob King, the former New Mexico head coach who hired Ellenberger as an assistant in 1967. "He's quietly paid his dues, and he's one of the country's greatest coaches."
UTEP may take exception to that, however. Ellenberger on their bench hasn't hurt the Miners' fortunes a bit. They'll no doubt keep him on probation as long as he wants to stay.