A MOCKERY OF JUSTICE
During his six-day trial in New Mexico State District Court on 22 counts of fraud and filing false public vouchers, Norm Ellenberger, the 49-year-old former New Mexico basketball coach who was dismissed in 1979 after a player's academic transcript was found to be falsified (SI, Dec. 10, 1979 et seq.), never denied billing the university for more than $6,000 worth of travel expenses the prosecution alleged were illegitimate. Instead, Ellenberger insisted that he did no wrong, that his superiors at the school knew what he was up to, and even condoned his actions in the interest of ensuring success for the New Mexico basketball team. Furthermore, Ellenberger testified that all the "extra money" in question was used to help support the program.
Apparently the 12-member jury paid more heed to Prosecutor Stephen Westheimer, who asserted that Ellenberger was little more than a "confidence man" involved in a "classic white-collar crime scheme." The jury acquitted Ellenberger of the charge that he cheated former Assistant Coach Charlie Harrison out of $3,000 from a $4,000 check that the Lobo Club, a booster organization, intended as a bonus for Harrison. But it returned guilty verdicts on 21 counts of "double-dipping." To wit: The money paid to Ellenberger by the school was for trips he either did not take or that were already paid for by an outside company.
Ellenberger could have received a sentence of as much as 105 years in prison from Judge Phillip D. Baiamonte, though no one expected him to serve time. But, then, no one expected the feathery tap on the wrist he got from the judge, either. Baiamonte deferred Ellenberger's sentence pending one year's unsupervised probation, upon successful completion of which all counts will be dismissed, and Ellenberger was not directed to make restitution to the university. The judge's leniency led jury foreman Clifford Maricle, a retired truck driver, to say, "I nearly fell out of my chair."
Some excerpts from Baiamonte's statement:
•"How fair is it to incarcerate a coach who is basically doing what almost everybody in this community wanted him to do? Namely, win basketball games at any cost and by whatever means necessary to do that. Naturally, the rules and laws were bent. Is anyone really surprised?"
•"If colleges and universities are going to conduct, in effect, minor league but professional basketball and football games and maintain those clubs, they cannot be heard to complain when things go wrong."
•"I'm being asked to sentence a man because he got caught, not because his conduct was unacceptable.... The State is asking that the Defendant be treated like a common criminal, even though that same State benefited from his conduct to the extent of several hundred thousand dollars a year."
Naturally, Ellenberger walked away smiling, just as coaches elsewhere—especially former Arizona Football Coach Tony Mason, who is currently undergoing a similar trial—are no doubt smiling. And why shouldn't they? The NCAA has done precious little to enforce its own rules of conduct. Now a state court has endorsed cheating as being "part of the system." If Ellenberger, one of the most prominent manipulators of that system, isn't punished, who should be?
Cheating is unacceptable, period, and Baiamonte could have used his platform to say so. Those institutions that cannot compete at the highest levels of collegiate sport without resorting to bending or breaking rules shouldn't attempt to. It's tiresome to keep hearing coaches like Ellenberger referring to themselves as "victims."