ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Call this story The Pit and the Penance. The tale of how the New Mexico basketball program, once the most scandal-ridden and punished in college athletics, has risen to once again bring national attention to this nearly mile-high city on the banks of the Rio Grande.
The Lobos are back among the elite in college basketball. Back where they were before Lobogate. Before grand juries. Before trials. Before the conviction of their former coach.
But although thoughts of punishment they have received may be fading in the euphoria of the moment, the stigma is not so easily erased.
Memories are long when events are recorded for posterity on tapes from a FBI wiretap.
More than eight years have passed since New Mexico was rocked by what was then the biggest college basketball scandal since the point-shaving incidents of the 1950s, but only this week did the program achieve that most tangible sign of recovery--a top 20 ranking.
The Lobos, who play San Diego State at 7:35 tonight in a Western Athletic Conference game at the San Diego Sports Arena, are 18th in the Associated Press poll. That is their first national ranking since they placed fourth in the final 1978 poll.
To get to 18th, New Mexico (14-3) not only had to beat No. 1 Arizona, 61-59, two Saturdays ago, it had to defeat then-No. 5 Wyoming, 85-72, last Saturday. Nothing these past eight years have been easy.
"When I first came here, I was dumb enough to think I could turn it around in a short period of time," said Gary Colson, a former Pepperdine coach who took over at New Mexico in the wake of the scandal.
Instead, it took years. There were three struggling seasons while the team was on National Collegiate Athletic Assn. probation, followed by 85 victories in four seasons with only four trips to the National Invitation Tournament to show as reward.
The events of the past few weeks, however, have begun to take some of the sting out of those troubled years and return the city to the frenzied excitement level of years past.
The Lobos have won 10 in a row for the first time in 10 seasons. The crowd in the University Arena, more commonly known as "the Pit" because it was built in a 56-foot hole in the ground, has been at its rockin' best.
"I'd like to have a contest on decibels," Colson said. "We'd win going away. You actually come out of there with headaches. The sound level is such, I'm sure an ear doctor would recommend you not go to Lobo games."
They keep coming anyway. The Pit was filled to its standing-room-only capacity of 18,100 for both Arizona and Wyoming. Scalping was profitable.
Maybe this is the season New Mexico stops paying for Lobogate.
"I've heard some of the fans say they've been waiting a long time to get some respect again," said Charlie Thomas, New Mexico junior forward. "They figure this is the year we finally get to go someplace."
To some it might seem unfair that the long-held hopes of redemption and renewed recognition have been placed in the hands of players such as Thomas.
Thomas was 13 years old, a junior high school student living in Maryland, when Lobogate broke. His freshman teammates were 10 and 11 at the time. Few have memories of the incident.
"Before I came here on my recruiting visit, I knew nothing about New Mexico," said Rob Loeffel, a junior center from Banning High School in Riverside County. "I had never heard of the Pit. I had no idea about Lobogate."
Only Stan Whisenant, a senior reserve guard, has any vivid recollections of the Lobogate years. Whisenant's father, John, was an assistant under Coach Norm Ellenberger. He left the season before the scandal broke and subsequently was acquitted of state charges in the case.
"I remember sitting in on the trials," Whisenant said. "I remember going to practices. All of that seems so long ago."
But as the Lobos learned from questions they encountered when they went to New York for the semifinals of the Big Apple NIT in November, the scandal is all many have known about Lobo basketball since 1979.
"The last thing they heard about New Mexico in New York was the scandal," Colson said. "But really, it's dead."
Chasing the ghosts away has not been that easy.
Larry Hubbard, one of seven players declared ineligible in the scandal, showed up at the Pit five seasons later--playing for Morgan State. He was a junior when he left New Mexico. He was a freshman when he returned. The discrepancy was uncovered; the coach, who also served as athletic director, was reassigned, and Hubbard was declared ineligible--again.
Lavon McDonald, who left as New Mexico's athletic director just before the scandal broke, was back in the news last month. He and his son, Thomas, pleaded not guilty to 33 counts of fraud, securities fraud and related crimes in connection with a family-owned drilling company.