Late last November the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque released a transcript of a tapped telephone conversation between Norm Ellenberger, the basketball coach at the University of New Mexico, and one of his assistants, Manny Goldstein. Goldstein and Ellenberger were overheard discussing paying off a junior-college official in Oxnard, Calif. to obtain a forged transcript for Guard Craig Gilbert, whom they were trying to keep eligible for the 1979-80 season.
But the phone tap was just the beginning. Soon, New Mexico found itself engulfed in a mushrooming scandal involving the manipulation of athletes' grades, a scandal that all but wiped out the UNM basketball team, forcing it to declare six players, including Gilbert, ineligible and to suspend a seventh.
By February, Ellenberger and a former assistant, John Whisenant, who had quit the New Mexico coaching staff after the 1978-79 season to become a realtor, had been indicted by a federal grand jury on mail-fraud charges; Ellenberger also was charged with one count of interstate travel in the aid of racketeering. But investigators had uncovered much more than alleged fraudulent behavior connected with keeping athletes eligible. Two weeks ago, a state grand jury, which had been conducting its own probe of the New Mexico mess, handed down an indictment charging Ellenberger with 22 counts of fraud and filing false public vouchers. Whisenant was hit with 12 counts on the same charges and Goldstein eight.
And the authorities, both federal and state, are still digging. Investigators are now exploring activities involving gambling and the illegal use of drugs. Although no indictments concerning betting and narcotics have been returned, probes are continuing into the following:
•Whether there was a relationship between Ellenberger and Whisenant and a group of well-known local gamblers. Whether these gamblers sometimes traveled with the team.
•Did Ellenberger and Whisenant bet? How much and how often and on what sports, and were they heavily in debt to bookmakers?
•Whether there was a relationship between the gamblers and some New Mexico players, who reportedly received cash gifts for good performances, and whether the gamblers helped the university recruit by paying $1,000 cash bonuses to prospective players.
•The possibility of fixed games.
•Whether any of the gamblers who hung around the New Mexico team had organized crime ties in Las Vegas.
•Whether there was overt use of cocaine in the New Mexico locker room and whether a local politician helped supply some Lobo players with drugs.