Gophers basketball great Willie Burton waved to the crowd. He bearhugged his former coach and teammates. He smiled. He cried. He took it all in as his No. 34 and picture hung in the rafters of the arena he dominated during a legendary career.
Burton, who led Minnesota to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in 1989 and 1990, gave the Gophers a wonderful ride as a player. He enjoyed the support he received back from fans, his former team and university Sunday as his jersey was retired at halftime of the Michigan State game.
After the game, Burton talked about being honored, about his former coach Clem Haskins, the current Gophers squad and more.
Q: What was that moment like when your No. 34 was raised into the rafters?
A: What hit me was the fact that all the hard work, all the sacrifice, all the drills, all the videos, all the injuries, all of the doubt [was worth it.] You’re talking about winning 18 games in two years. You’re talking about turning it around like that. That’s the reality. [No one would believe if] I said to you a team that was 9-19 for two years and the next year, they’re going to make it to the Sweet 16 and be known as the nation’s giant killers and knock off top-ranked teams. I think that’s what really came into play. No one knew how hard it was for us.
Q: How did you feel being able to celebrate the moment with Haskins and your former teammates?
A: Yeah, Willie Burton did a few things that were different in some statistical areas. But at the end of the day we were all out there together. They set screens; they passed the ball. When I decided to break the play, they didn’t fight me. They believed I knew what I was doing, and they supported me. I made a decision outside of maybe what the coach said, and they supported it. I’m up there, but we’re up there.
Q: Do you think Haskins was appreciated here?
A: It’s pretty obvious out there. They appreciated him. Situations happen sometimes that you don’t understand why. I didn’t know. I don’t know anything about that version that things I heard. All I know is if you blinked wrong that was it, dude. I ran above in this track so many times for not doing something. For not being 15 minutes early. He had a theory that if you were less than 15 minutes early you were late. Things like that. That’s what I knew.
Q: What are your thoughts about the Gophers basketball program right now?
A: This is one of the premier campuses in the country, but the bottom line to it is that coaches and coach. At some point players have to play. You can draw up all the Xs and Os you want here. When the game starts coach has to stand on the sideline. I don’t care if he’s a 15-time national championship coach or someone who just got here.
Q: What did you tell the current Gophers team?
A: I talked about opportunity … A team like Michigan State is very physical. They’re not going to let you run your [plays]. They’re going to lean on you, lean on you and lean on you and create havoc and make it a lot harder to do the things you normally do. At some point in time the players have to stop relying on the coaches. When you grow up, the team that I’m talking about that was 9-19 and turned into the NCAA tournament Elite Eight and Sweet 16 teams we took the coaches scheme and made it happen. No excuses. None whatsoever. We made each other accountable on the basketball court. If we messed up let me make it clear that the coach took my head off or took someone’s head off. However, we were willing to take those risks to do some pretty remarkable things.