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Original Issue

Meatheads in the adobe

The desert-loving New Mexicans were swinging along in the national limelight until some Arizona freshmen rose up to put out their fire

Maybe Archie Bunker is right about these here meatheads. The young people want to walk into college basketball and take right over. They don't act their age and they don't respect their elders. If this keeps up, pretty soon they'll be telling us what to do. Why, any day now you expect some disheveled college coach to sidle up to you on a street corner and whisper hoarsely, "Want to see some pictures of some seniors?"

Look at what happened to the University of New Mexico last weekend. It had this svelte 9-0 record and a ranking as high as 10th in a wire service poll. Then it played Arizona State University on Friday night and a freshman helped turn that winning streak into a mirage. It played the University of Arizona on Saturday night and five freshmen helped turn that mirage into a catastrophe. The old neighborhood, it seems like, is going fast. Why'd they have to let them in anyway? They were happy. They didn't know any better.

But freshmen are here to stay and play, and next year Norm Ellenberger plans to have a few of his own at New Mexico. Last March when he took over as head coach, he and his equally new assistant, John Whisenant, decided it was too late to recruit the super high school seniors and instead concentrated on junior college transfers. Nobody in Albuquerque was questioning the formula as the Lobos stacked up victories during the first month of this season.

Ellenberger's team was the hottest thing in New Mexico, a state buffeted by the jibes of cynics who offer it up as evidence that anytime you try to build a world in six days, you're going to make mistakes. They sneer that it is an aberration produced by nature's power saw, the state flower is a lizard and the best grass seed to use in New Mexico is sand, part of the reason why the scenery looks like a vacant lot. "But people here really love it," says Don McGuire, a member of the school publicity department. "They are content to have their adobe house with the adobe fireplace and a little corral out back for a couple of horses and let the sun beat down on them and the wind blow. They love it." Sounds grand, Don.

So how do you recruit basketball players to such a moonscape? "I came for the school not the area," explains Don Ford, a Californian who could have played in either Los Angeles or San Francisco. "The people here love basketball." That they do. The Lobos' arena seats just under 15,000, including a camp character nicknamed Pops, a man in his 80s who shows up at every home game wearing a New Mexico baseball uniform. The most fiercely contested item in Albuquerque divorce courts is who gets custody of the Lobos' season tickets. Reserved standing room is sold for each game, home and away games are televised, and the players are regarded as certified celebrities.

The dominant figure on the scene is Ellenberger, a handsome man who is 39 years old, looks 29 and acts 19. He has an eclectic style, is modern enough to wear white patent-leather shoes, embroidered shirts and bell-bottom slacks, sincere enough to give his players a soul handshake and appear comfortable doing it and old-fashioned enough to demand respect. The coach walks around the campus extolling the benefits of positive thinking and borrows freely from Whisenant, who had an outstanding record as a junior college coach. He borrows, too, from his bench, pointing pridefully to the fact that the team scored 107 points in one game and the high man only had 15. "We've got them believing that you make your own luck," Ellenberger said earlier in the week, commenting on come-from-behind victories over Oregon State and New Mexico State, wins that made Lazarus' comeback seem a trifle. "We've never panicked, we've stayed cool right down to the wire and then we've just gone on to win."

Until that trip into Arizona. In the first game the Lobos had a three-point lead with four minutes left and then fell apart, losing 67-62, and in the second they led by 10 in the first half before sinking 83-73. In both games their good big man, Darryl Minniefield, got into foul trouble and was whistled to the sidelines.

The Lobos played the games under conditions producing anxieties similar to those a turkey suffers in November. The trip opened play in the rugged Western Athletic Conference, a league notorious for its home-court favoritism, and New Mexico was visiting relics from the days of the laced ball, ASU's Sun Devil Gym and Arizona's Bear Down Gym. In both, the visitors should have worn earmuffs.

Their national ranking might have been as much of a hindrance for the Lobos as sand in their sneakers in the opening game against Arizona State. "It could have hurt us," said Assistant Whisenant. "We went out trying to be cool. We forgot how hard we had to work to win those nine games. And they were ready."

Especially freshman Gary Jackson, who came off the bench with 15 points, 12 in the second half, to complement junior Ron Kennedy's 24 points. "Rankings and All-Americas, they don't mean much to me," scoffed Jackson. "That's only paper. When I go out there, you got to prove it to me."

New Mexico sought redemption in an unlikely place Saturday night. Arizona had beaten another league favorite, the University of Texas at El Paso, in Bear Down the previous night, and it also had a new coach, Fred Snowden, a black who took the job after five years as an assistant at Michigan. In the early '60s Snowden compiled a remarkable 167-8 won-lost record coaching high school ball in Detroit, but when he arrived at Arizona he inherited a program which had produced a grand total of six victories all last season.

Nicknamed the "Fox," the diminutive Snowden, 36, quickly recruited five super freshmen, including Eric Money and Coniel Norman, a pair of fabulous high school teammates from Detroit who knew and respected the coach. "Snowden's from the same neighborhood and background I'm from, so I can't slip nothing past him," said Money.

Money and Norman, along with peer Al Fleming, have been regulars, and at times Snowden has flooded the floor with all five of his prize freshmen at once. The team stuttered early under the awkwardness of the young, losing two of its first three games, but has been going strong since.

Ellenberger replaced Bernard Hardin, the team's second leading scorer and rebounder, with Mark Saiers for the opening tip, hoping to regain that spark that had been the enzyme for the nine victories. But the Lobos had no one to match Norman's outside shooting. He sank 13 of 20 shots, most of them dusty from travel, and scored 34 points. "He might be one of the greatest premier shooters in the country ever," said Ellenberger. "You'd have to have a canoe paddle to guard that guy."

For Snowden the win was like nectar after a diet of disappointment. "I didn't think I'd ever get here," he said. "I saw guys moving out and going on to college coaching, and I thought, "What do I have to do?' As a kid, I was like everybody else. I lived in the bad section of town. But I scrapped my way out of it. I had a coach, Sam Bishop. He was the only white man who wasn't afraid to come down there and coach us. I was a thug. That was all any of us were, but he made me realize that I had other skills. He built a lot of men.

"Here they know I'm not going to love them any less if they lose one. We pray a lot. We cry a lot. And we love a lot. My black players, I'm their image. My white players, my two white assistant coaches, that's their image. I've got wonderful black kids and wonderful white kids and they're making democracy a living thing."

Well, maybe Archie Bunker is wrong.