(Last in a five-part series in Final Four week on Minnesota basketball events.)
This was the winter of 1986-87 when the Big Ten was the perfect basketball league.There were 10 teams and you played all nine opponents home-and-away. And there were still travel partners, with the Gophers and Iowa generally at home and on the road simultaneously, and most often on Thursday and Saturday.
There have been four teams added to the conference – starting with Penn State in 1992-93 – and the Gophers are now as likely to play a home-and-away against Rutgers as Iowa or Wisconsin.
It’s pathetic, particularly when you consider that three of the additions (Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers) generally bring zero to the conference in basketball.
Maryland is 59-33 and has finished ahead of the Gophers (32-60) in all five seasons in the conference, so we probably can’t complain about the Terps’ basketball presence.
Those days of the travel partners and a predictable schedule … you couldn’t beat it.
In February 1987, I had the coverage for a Gophers’ trip that started in Bloomington, Ind. on Thursday and wound up in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday.
It was a hectic Thursday, since that was the winter that “Hoosiers’’ had been released, and I made a winding, early-morning drive to Milan – home of the real Hickory Huskers.
I owed the St. Paul newspaper a column and there wasn’t much expectation for drama that night in Bloomington, so I inspected the trophies won by the 1954 Milan Indians, visited a couple of oldtimers in the little town and cranked that out just in time for tipoff.
This was Clem Haskins’ first season and he was trying to raise the Gophers from the ashes that remained from the rape charges (but not convictions) leveled against three players in Madison, Wis. in the winter of 1986.
It wasn’t going all that well. The Gophers had opened the Big Ten schedule with victories over Wisconsin and Northwestern at Williams Arena, but now they were carrying a 10-game losing streak onto Bobby Knight’s home court.
The Hoosiers were ranked No. 2 in the country on Feb. 19, and six weeks later, Keith Smart would hit a last-second jump shot, Jimmy Chitwood-style, to beat Syracuse and win Knight’s third (and last) national title.
On this night in Assembly Hall, for all his success, Bobby clearly was not able to convince his Hoosiers before the contest that they were in for a challenge from Clem’s bedraggled Gophers.
And yet the Gophers played the game of their season, and in a couple of cases their lives, and had a chance for an astounding upset -- until Knight profanely intimidated a referee to overturn a possession.
The final was 72-70 for Indiana, and the Gophers’ losing streak would be 16 Big Ten games at season’s end. Clem had things fixed with several of the same players two seasons later with a Sweet 16 appearance, followed by a regional final.
The Gophers were taking a late-night bus trip across Indiana and Ohio to Columbus after the game and I was able to bum a ride. To that point, the conversations with Haskins had been business-like, but I was able to sit across from him in the front of a darkened, quiet bus for three hours and ask him about such things as being a black kid growing up as an exceptional basketball prospect in the Old South.
Clem was a high school standout in his hometown of Campbellsville, Ky., transferring from a black high school to nearly all-white Taylor County for his last two years.
Then, he decided to go to Louisville, which had been integrated a couple of years earlier. The kings of the state, Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats, were still segregated.
On the night ride to Columbus, Clem talked about getting homesick during summer school at Louisville and heading back closer to Campbellsville to play at Western Kentucky.
The co-star of what became great Hilltopper teams was Dwight Smith. He also became Haskins’ closest friend.
Clem talked about the 1965-66 Western Kentucky team that was 24-2 going into a regional final vs. Michigan and Cazzie Russell. The Hilltoppers lost, 80-79, when a foul was called vs. the WKU on a jump ball.
“Steve Honzo,’’ Haskins said in a low voice. “Worst call ever.’’
He had a long pause, a shake of the head and said: “We were going to the Final Four. We would have played the Wildcats in the semifinals. Kentucky didn’t want that. Kentucky still was segregated. They didn’t want to have home-state black kids beat them.’’
Kentucky wound up losing to Texas Western (now UTEP) and the Miners’ all-black lineup in the title game. That beat losing to Kentucky’s Western.
Clem shook his head again and murmured: “Steve Honzo. What a call. I’ve never gotten over it.’’
And then Haskins talked about something else he had never gotten over … what happened after Dwight Smith, and his kid brother, Greg, another Hilltopper, and their sister Kay went to visit their parents on Mother’s Day in 1967.
“Kay was just a beautiful girl, a wonderful girl,’’ Haskins said.
The family home was in Princeton, Ky., 90 miles from the Western Kentucky campus.
There was a driving rain on Sunday, but the Smith children had to get back to prepare for some end-of-year tests and left that night. Greg Smith was driving, and it was a hilly, country road, and the car hydroplaned and overturned in a rain-filled ditch.
Greg was able to kick out a window and escape. His attempts to save his siblings were unsuccessful. Dwight, Clem’s best friend, and his sister Kay, a wonderful young woman, died that night.
This was two decades later, and Clem told the story in hushed tones, and I looked across in the darkness, and could see tears rolling down his face.
And through it all, the great ups and distressing down, that has remained my No. 1 memory of the best Gophers’ basketball coach of my lifetime.
The rest of the series: