Nobody knows the whereabouts of the Gophers’ 1997 Big Ten championship trophy. The massive gold “FINAL FOUR” banner with maroon trim that once hung from the Williams Arena rafters is rumored to be buried in a storage room somewhere, either in the Barn or Mariucci Arena.
All evidence from that captivating run through the NCAA tournament is gone. Wiped off college basketball’s map. So much so that the 20th anniversary season of the University of Minnesota’s only men’s Final Four just went by without a word of recognition on campus.
The former players themselves aren’t even sure they will gather for a reunion this year. They wanted to be recognized by the university, despite the academic cheating scandal that would later damage the program and erase their accomplishments.
“You have to acknowledge us,” former star guard Bobby Jackson said last week from Sacramento, Calif. “I think when you have such a great team in such a great era, I think that’s why people remember it and won’t let it go.”
The NCAA played a lead role in slashing six Gophers seasons — 1993-94 to 1998-99 — from the record books, leaving the Final Four team’s legacy in the hands of fans and team members.
Some former teammates keep in touch; others haven’t been heard from in years. It’s a scattered bunch now, with players living in various parts of the country. Several players live in state, but only a few of them occasionally attend Gophers games.
Some members of the ’97 team said they would have reunited this past season for a formal 20-year anniversary celebration of the Final Four — like Michigan did for members of its tarnished “Fab Five” in 2010 and 2016 — if Gophers coach Clem Haskins was there.
Haskins, who resigned and retired from coaching after NCAA violations surfaced in 1999, said last week that he wants the U to acknowledge him and his team. “I hurt for my players,” he said. “They deserve that.’’
‘‘Befriending me or making me feel welcomed back is very important particularly to my players,” he added. “The president and the athletic director, they need to reach out and welcome me back.”
‘Can’t hide from it’
Haskins doesn’t miss coaching the game. But he misses being around the people who loved his program.
In March 1999, two years after leading the Gophers to the biggest stage, the university’s support for its most successful coach in team history evaporated quickly after former academic counselor Jan Gangelhoff admitted to writing hundreds of papers for several basketball players during a six-year period of Haskins’ tenure.
Costly investigations were launched, and the NCAA ultimately hammered Minnesota with a four-year probation sentence while erasing the six seasons of results, including four NCAA tournament appearances and an NIT championship. Haskins never admitted to knowing about the cheating. The 73-year-old paused over the phone Friday when asked about his departure.
“I’ve moved on,” Haskins said from his family farm in Kentucky. “You have to learn to turn the page. Unfortunately, it happened the way it did then, and I was sorry I left that way. But I was ready to move on.”
Having coached for 18 years, including 13 years with the Gophers, Haskins said he should have retired in 1997. He said he was nearly burnt out.
“I was giving everything to the University of Minnesota to make that program to what it became,” said the man who coached the Gophers to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances in 1989 and ’90, respectively. “It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of sweat, a lot of headaches, a lot of disappointment, a lot of ups and downs to get it to the point it’s at. We had one of the elite programs in the country.”
And one of the elite players.
Jackson, the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1997, scored 36 points in the double overtime win in the Sweet 16 against Clemson. He shares stories of that magical tournament run with his children.
But Jackson, one of the players involved in the academic fraud, admitted responsibility years ago and now uses that as a lesson for young people.
“If we could go back and do it again everybody would to it totally different,” Jackson, who played 12 seasons in the NBA and now is a Sacramento Kings radio analyst, said last week. “We would handle it a totally different way. And you try to teach your kids how not to make the same mistakes you made as a young man.”
Last year, Michigan invited former Fab Five players Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson back to recognize the 25th anniversary of that talented class. That event was a forum to discuss their cultural impact, and the NCAA violations — brought on by Chris Webber and other players accepting money from a booster — that later erased their accomplishments, just as Minnesota experienced.
“You can’t hide from it,” Bobby Jackson said. “It’s a learning experience. Move on. Acknowledge the players. It’s been 20 years.”
Can’t take away memories
Eric Harris was a tough-minded point guard from the Bronx. Trevor Winter was a 7-foot, 275-pound center from Slayton, Minn.
At a practice in 1997, Harris and Winter got into a scuffle, a heated moment they laugh about today. Haskins always had boxing gloves sitting at the side of the court.
“When he swings, you felt it,” Harris joked. “Our battles in practice were intense. John [Thomas] and Courtney [James] went at it. Bobby was aggressive. That’s what Coach Haskins demanded from us.”
Winter said the team adopted a fighter’s mentality and learned “how to battle and how to survive.”
Two of the best individual performances came in the Sweet 16 — Jackson’s 36 points and Sam Jacobson’s 29. But the most memorable game came earlier in Ann Arbor, Mich., when the Gophers clinched the Big Ten title with a 55-54 victory. Harris stole the ball in the closing moments and passed it to Jackson, who got fouled and hit a free throw with 2.9 seconds left to seal it.
That dynamic backcourt could have led the Gophers to the national title had it remained healthy, Haskins said. Harris separated his shoulder against Clemson. In the Final Four, the Gophers lost to Kentucky 78-69 in Indianapolis, with Harris starting but limited by his injury.
“That really hurt us a lot,” Jackson said. “He was our floor general. ... Being in the backcourt with Eric, we made it hard on opposing guards every single night. I think you really, really relish those memories.”
Harris, who speaks often with Jackson, hasn’t let the scandal ruin his bond with some former teammates.
“No matter what you do, ’97 is going to be etched in stone in people’s hearts,” he said. “We had the Barn rocking and rolling.”
When the Gophers returned from the Midwest Regional in San Antonio, they were met by 14,000 fans in Williams Arena.
“It was so packed I almost didn’t get in,” said longtime public address announcer Dick Jonckowski, who introduced the team to the crowd. “The noise was unbelievable. The cheering went on and on.”
An outsider now
Haskins pushed a trailer outside of the garage on his 750-acre farm in Campbellsville, Ky., a working-class town of 11,000 people 90 miles south of Louisville, while reflecting on the past last week. He still raises hundreds of cattle on the land where he grew up.
Haskins, the Big Ten and National Coach of the Year in 1997, was banned in 1999 from college basketball until 2007, but he never stood on any sideline again. He said he has not even worked a camp.
But Haskins does watch high school games at his alma mater, Taylor County. He recently followed along on TV as the team’s former point guard Quentin Goodin led Xavier to the Elite Eight. “But when I retired, I turned the page,” Haskins said. “I don’t do any basketball anymore.”
Haskins said he still receives letters and calls from Minnesota. They are coming more frequently this year on the 20th anniversary.
“It really, really does your heart good and makes you feel good to hear phone calls or get a letter to see how much people appreciate you,” he said.
Nobody appreciates Haskins more than his players, many of whom still keep in touch. Their old coach has a cellphone he rarely uses. But his wife, Yevette, responds or exchanges texts to keep him updated.
Seven members of the 1997 Gophers still live in Minnesota, including Thomas, Jacobson, Winter and Quincy Lewis, who works for Gophers athletics. Thomas, a manager of training for Ultimate Hoops, ran into Haskins at a convention in Las Vegas last summer and shared his idea for a reunion.
“The last thing Coach said is he wanted to get the school’s blessing in order to make it right,” Thomas said. “From my perspective, I still think they should honor him and do it at the school, regardless of what happened. For them, it’s like they would be going back on erasing our records and saying we condone what happened. I get where they’re coming from.”
Haskins was at Williams Arena three years ago when the U recognized the 25th anniversary of his 1989 Sweet 16 team. But his first time back after the scandal was Dec. 29, 2009, a recognition of the 20th anniversary of his Elite Eight season. Those teams came before the academic violation period.
Haskins said last week that administration didn’t want him there in 2009. But his players insisted and brought him up from the stands to the court with them. He ended up hearing his name announced to resounding cheers.
“The university did not want me back on campus,” Haskins said. “That hurt me. That really hurt me. But I had so much support from my players. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a very emotional person at times. I have a heart. I can cry with the best of them. That was one of the highlights of my whole career. To feel the love of the fans in that [arena] and from my players that were there.”
University spokesman Jake Ricker said that while there are no plans to recognize the Final Four team, Haskins would be welcomed back if any of his teams are honored in the future.
Twice Michigan has invited the Fab Five back on campus and acknowledged their accomplishments, even giving a few players a halftime ceremony to receive honorary jackets and plaques six years ago. But the 1997 Gophers and Haskins will be left to trying to schedule a reunion on their own this year.
“If they put something together,” Haskins said, “I would definitely show up.”