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STRONG SURVIVOR : Gary Colson, Ousted at New Mexico, Lands on His Feet as an Assistant at Cal

December 06, 1988|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Gary Colson was a very public figure when he coached basketball at the University of New Mexico.

"It was like being a pro coach in college. It became a joke," Colson said. "I was eating dinner with (Laker General Manager) Jerry West, at a restaurant in Albuquerque, when a fan came up and asked for my autograph and ignored Jerry."

There was no place Colson could hide.

"I went to Perth, Australia, to recruit a player," he said. "I thought that at least I could go to Australia and nobody would recognize me. The first thing off the plane in Sydney, somebody said 'Hey, Coach!' "

Although it isn't exactly what he had in mind, Colson has escaped the limelight after 8 seasons at New Mexico.

Colson, 54, ousted after last season, now is the senior assistant at California. It's a bit of a comedown for him after 29 seasons as a head coach.

"I'm the highest-paid assistant coach in America," he said. "I'm being paid by two schools. I giggle at the end of every month."

Colson settled the final 2 years of his New Mexico contract for $200,000. If he had his preference, though, he would still be picking up his check at Albuquerque.

"I love it here at Berkeley, but I'd rather be the head coach at the University of New Mexico," he said.

Colson arrived at New Mexico in 1980 after 11 years at Pepperdine and restored the Lobo basketball program after one of the worst scandals in college sports. In Albuquerque, they called it Lobogate.

The scandal, which resulted from an FBI wiretap as part of a separate gambling investigation, involved the provision of fake transcripts for junior college transfers and bogus credits for players. Coach Norm Ellenberger was convicted on 21 counts of providing false public vouchers.

After a 3-year National Collegiate Athletic Assn. probation ended in 1983, New Mexico averaged 21 wins over the next 5 years. The Lobos qualified for the National Invitation Tournament each of those years.

"It was like a war zone after a big battle," Colson said. "The trust level was zero. I didn't know what I was getting into. But I took the job because of John Bridgers (who was hired as athletic director to clean up the program)."

"I was sitting on my boat reading about the scandal in the L.A. Times. And I looked at the back page and saw that they had hired John Bridgers, whom I had known for a long time. I said that the phone would ring within an hour, and 30 minutes later the phone rang, and it was John. He said that he wasn't going to interview anybody else because he wanted me to take the job."

But Bridgers quit in 1987 and Colson clashed with his new boss, John Koenig. Eventually, Colson went over Koenig's head when he asked New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers to settle a contract dispute.

Colson won the battle--Carruthers gave him a 3-year contract--but he apparently lost the war.

New Mexico, 22-14 last season, defeated 3 teams ranked in the top 20--Arizona when the Wildcats were No. 1, fifth-ranked Wyoming and Brigham Young. The Lobos were ranked 18th after a 14-3 start, but a late-season slump cost them an NCAA tournament berth, and that probably cost Colson his job.

Koenig asked Colson to resign at the end of the season.

Colson broke down and cried while reading his letter of resignation at a press conference.

"I thought (Koenig) was going to give me a raise when he called me in," Colson said. "But he told me that he didn't think I could take the program where they wanted to go. Honestly, I don't think I could have saved my job even if we had made the NCAA playoffs.

"I think it sends a bad message to other coaches. The ironic thing is that Ellenberger did it all wrong and they had a national scandal, probably one of the worst, and he got fired. And we did it right. We had 26 of 30 kids who graduated, we averaged 21 wins and had no trouble with the NCAA, and we got fired. So I don't know what the signal is."

Ironically, Koenig himself was fired July 22 for alleged misuse of school travel funds and is under state investigation.

"I still can't believe it," Colson said. "I guess I'm like the guy who's standing on the street corner and gets shot in a drive-by shooting. The school president told me that things would be different if he knew then what he knows now.

"But your momma and my momma said life wasn't going to be fair. I've always tried to stay ahead of the posse, but they finally caught up to me."

A New Mexico spokesman said Colson was asked to resign because of philosophical differences. Gerald May, the university president, refused an interview request.

Colson's firing stunned Bridgers, his former boss now working in business in Albuquerque.

"He did a great job here," Bridgers said. "I was surprised and disappointed. I think it was most undeserving. He took New Mexico from zero to the top. I thought he did an outstanding job. He had the right perspective."

Although Colson's teams won, Bridgers said that Colson never captured the hearts and minds of Lobo fans as had the flamboyant Ellenberger.

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