Knipfing’s Notes: Lobo HeartbreakMarch 23rd, 2013 at 9:00 am by Dick Knipfing under Knipfings Notes, News
Everyone’s a Lobo: Woof! Woof! Aaarrgghhh!!!
Harvard 68. UNM 62. That one hurt.
Last night’s UNM loss to the unranked Ivy League champs in the first round of the NCAA tournament got national headlines this morning. Not the headlines anyone here hoped for. On the heels of a great regular season, a Mountain West Tournament championship, a top ten ranking and hopes for a Sweet Sixteen-or-better finish, the Lobos instead have the dreaded “one and done” hanging around their necks today.
I love Lobo basketball. When I came to UNM in 1961 the Lobos played in then-new Johnson Gym in the heart of campus. It was a few steps from the Student Union Building to Johnson. The seats were always great, because the teams hardly ever won and hardly anyone ever came. Bob King changed all that a few years later. He turned Lobo basketball into a winner and brought it to national prominence. Johnson’s seven thousand seats were quickly sold out and there was suddenly so much demand for tickets that the Pit was built.
But, here’s the thing. As much success as the Lobos have had over the years since then, as large as the crowds continue to be at the Pit, Lobo basketball has never been able to quite reach the highest plateau. Just when the program seems to be on the edge of going over the top, we lose our grip. Bob King’s first great team went to the finals of the NIT when the NIT was a really big deal, got lots of national pub, then lost badly in the championship. Norm Ellenberger had a great team in the late ‘Seventies that had the legitimate makings of a Final Four run but lost in a huge upset, a la Harvard, to Cal State Fullerton.
Lobogate took UNM out of serious contention for most of the ‘Eighties. In the ‘Nineties Dave Bliss had very good teams that consistently went to the NCAA tournament, but couldn’t get past the second round. Fran Fraschilla and Ritchie McKay tried hard but had little success.
Now there’s Steve Alford, a great player who may be a great coach. His overall and Mountain West records are outstanding. Last year’s Lobos were ever-so-close to knocking off Louisville and making it to the Sweet Sixteen. This year’s Lobos had the ingredients to finally get there, but are now on their way back to Albuquerque, tickets to the “promised land” cancelled. Why? I’m not smart enough to know. There will doubtless be second guessing about UNM’s decision to announce Alford’s rich, new ten year contract on Wednesday, the day before the Harvard game. Did that distract the players, the coaches? Did they lose focus? Who knows, but in the wake of the embarrassing loss, the timing of the contract announcement ends up being at least awkward.
Fans can gripe, grumble and vent their angst but the people who feel worst about all this, of course, are the players. They are talented and hardworking, good young men. It’s not like they quit. Things like the Harvard game happen in sports and in life. Unfortunately they seem to happen too often to UNM basketball. But, most of this year’s best players will be back and probably better next year, pushing and scrambling, trying again to reach the “promised land” and further. And, sometime, some golden year, they will. I promise.