Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Guest Blog Entry: Looking back at the 1992 NMSU Sweet 16 team

The following blog entry comes from Sun-News features writer James Staley. Staley did a wonderful job marking the 20th anniversary of New Mexico State's run to the 1992 Sweet 16.

Read Staley's complete story here:

Following are some notes that did not make it into the story that James was good enough to share:

NMSU 1992 Sweet 16 notes
A few tidbits that didn’t fit into the story.
The Aggies were in the middle of a five-year NCAA Tournament run when they took the floor in Tempe, Ariz. As strong as coach Neil McCarthy’s program had become — NMSU finished 1991 ranked 15th, and had been has high as 11th — it hadn’t won on college basketball’s grandest stage.
Looking back, players and coaches I talked to for this story mentioned the luck factor. Breaks are a part of sports, and NMSU benefitted in 1992. In previous years, on teams that many considered to be better than the 1992 team, that didn’t happen.
For example ...
1990: McCarthy’s first NCAA Tournament starts with a game against Loyola Marymount, a team that was a sentimental favorite nationally after the stunning death of star Hank Gathers. The Aggies played the Lions in Long Beach, Calif., LMU’s backyard. And the selection committee dropped the Lions significantly after the death of Gathers, which pitted his teammates against the No. 6 seed Aggies.
1991: This might have been McCarthy’s best team — it had NBA champion Randy Brown and another guard that spent some time in the league, Reggie Jordan. But No. 11 seed Creighton was the perfect antagonist for NMSU. The Aggies relied on getting 20 offensive rebounds and forcing 20 turnovers then. Creighton was strong and smart with the ball, and forced NMSU to shoot jumpers, not their strength.
Contrast these years to 1992 ...
NMSU was never ranked that season, though it came close after a 13-1 start. The Aggies went into the tournament as underdogs, and No. 5 seed DePaul couldn’t contain Sam Crawford. In the next game, Southwestern Louisiana, a 13-seed, dropped No. 4 seed Oklahoma. NMSU, known as a mediocre (at best) free throw shooting team, hit its final 16 shots to seal its trip to Albuquerque.
When I found out that not too many Aggie fans made the trek to Tempe, Ariz., I wondered if it was because the fans were frustrated by the previous postseason letdowns — after all, tickets were available the morning of the DePaul game. That might have been some of it. But some people were hoping the Aggies would get to Albuquerque, and planning to watch them there.
That turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. Tickets in Las Cruces and Albuquerque sold out and many were being illegally scalped for as much as $300 (face value was $45), according to Albuquerque Journal classified ad archives. Police arrested 10 for scalping, including two Lobos assistant coaches and a prominent UNM booster.
From the Sun-News archives ...
Before NMSU hired Neil McCarthy in March of 1985, some of the reported possible Aggie coaches were ...
• Current coaches Tim Floyd (UTEP) and Mike Montgomery (Cal) 
• Nolan Richardson, Tulsa’s coach at the time, who later won a national title at Arkansas
• Jerry Pimm, who coached at UC Santa Barbara and Utah. He was the coach that McCarthy loved to beat the most, according to one source
• Former Aggies Rob Evans and Jimmy Collins
NMSU signed McCarthy to a six-year deal worth $55,000 per year. That was a significant increase over what Weldon Drew, the coach McCarthy replaced, was making. But it’s nothing now. In 2007, NMSU signed Marvin Menzies to a deal worth $325,000 per year. For comparison’s sake, UNM paid Richie McKay $500,000 a year when it signed him a decade ago.
Speaking of UNM, some reports suggested that NMSU hurried to sign McCarthy because there were rumors the Lobos wanted him. But, as it turned out, the UNM coach at the time, Gary Colson, didn’t leave till 1988
McCarthy had a knack for getting players to play hard. I got the sense that many players didn’t like him, but McCarthy could motivate them. No question about that.
Chris Hickman explained this in an email: “He was really good at babying the guys that needed to be babied, screaming at the guys that needed to be screamed at and leaving others completely alone.  However, I will tell you that once he written you off, you were done.  He would get inside a player’s head that he had written off and do exactly the opposite of what I referenced above.  If they needed to be babied, he’d bully them.  He didn’t have to ‘fire’ people, they quit once he got on them.”
When I talked to McCarthy, he seemed to be enjoying the life of a retiree, which for McCarthy and his wife Vivian means, grandkids, reading and watching sports on TV. He said he watches the Aggies on “channel 61” — I looked it up, he was right. We spoke in January, and he asked about the departure of Christian Kabongo. When I mentioned that NMSU seemed to play better without Kabongo because of better ball movement, McCarthy said, “he did have sticky hands.”
McCarthy didn’t sound bitter, though he did have a few jabs for Lou Henson, who replaced during his contested ouster. First McCarthy said Henson took the job “supposedly out of the goodness of his heart.” Then said, “how many schools have a coach that gets them on probation, then hire him back 20 years later?”
Some of the more vivid memories the players recalled during interviews were from the Pit in Albuquerque.
Marc Thompson said his most vivid memory was seeing then-Indiana coach Bob Knight outside the locker room before NMSU’s game against UCLA. Thompson remembers being struck by Knight’s size — he’s about 6-foot-5, huge for a coach, and his reputation makes him loom larger — as Knight shook the hands of NMSU’s players and wished them luck.
Then, Thompson said, they went on to the floor and heard the fans. At that point he was caught in the moment.
Reserve guard Brian Sitter remembered the practice the day before, when he estimated 10,000 fans watched the Aggies practice. Sitter said when McCarthy saw and heard the spirited mob (certainly some were Lobos fans, cheering for the Aggies) he ripped up his practice plans and told the Aggies to have fun.
For Eric Traylor, what stood out was what happened after the loss to UCLA. He said there weren’t too many tears. Said Traylor: “If we would have taken the one-and-done aspect more seriously, I think we would have beaten UCLA. We were just excited to get to the Sweet 16.”
I asked each of the players I reached about their reaction to the 1995 NCAA sanctions that officially vacated NMSU’s NCAA Tournament wins in 1992 and 1993.
As it pertains to the 1992 team, the NCAA reported that NMSU assistant Chris Nordquist wrote eight papers for a player in the summer of 1991 (two newspaper reports named that player as Chris Dinkins, a reserve forward).
McCarthy was cited for lack of institutional control. One of his top assistants, Gar Forman, was accused of setting up the cheating, while another coach executed it. Basically five other players were obtaining fraudulent grades from correspondence courses. Forman was later cleared in an appeal. Forman’s employer, the Chicago Bulls, didn’t respond to interview requests.
Nordquist didn’t respond to emails for the story either. In a 1999, he told Sports Illustrated: “When you’re in that position, there are a lot of psychological (pressures). I feel like I had a choice, but didn’t have a choice. “
Here were some of the player reactions ...
Chris Hickman: “The sad thing about all of this is that the NCAA, in and of itself, is just a ridiculous institution. The whole process is a joke. There’s no way a school can protect itself from the actions of one individual.”
Ron Putzi: “Honestly, I had not heard that news until right now. Funny, not sure what to think.”
Marc Thompson: “I was disappointed coach was involved and some players I went to war with were ineligible.”
Brian Sitter: “Honestly, it didn't really affect me...I wasn't aware of any of those things that they said were going on...I know that we worked our tails off in the gym...I have great memories and great far as I'm concerned, we went in and won those games so they are still wins in my mind...I'm not a big fan of the NCAA so whatever they did after I left doesn't really matter to me.”
John Bartleson: “No reaction from me. We earned it and it can never be taken away.”
The NCAA vacated NMSU’s 2-1 record in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, which means, officially, it didn’t happen (which is different from a forfeit, in which the opposing team is awarded a win).  To me that’s a ridiculous punishment. It has no real meaning. More recently, some teams the NCAA punished had to return postseason earnings. An NMSU official said the school didn’t have to return the reported $116,883 it earned for that NCAA Tournament appearance.


Anonymous said...

I was a student in 1992 and those McCarthy years were one of the best in terms of NMSU BB!!

That magical run into the Sweet 16 was unbelievable!

20 years later, can Manzies do it again?
I have a feeling, lightning will strike twice!

Go Aggies, beat IU!!!


Anonymous said...

I was 12 years old that season and I still remember it vividly. Great story James Staley. Thanks for writing it.

Anonymous said...

You remind me of Jack Nixon and his I remember back in the day when helmets were made of leather.