The year-by-year results found on gophersports.com claim that Bill Musselman’s third Minnesota basketball team, the 1973-74 Gophers, played Bradley and New Mexico at the end of December in the Far West Classic in Portland, Ore.
This is not accurate. The Gophers played those teams in the Lobo Invitational in The Pit, the famed home of the New Mexico Lobos in Albuquerque.
This was Musselman’s lone under-talented team among the four he coached at the university. Jim Brewer, Ron Behagen, Clyde Turner and those fellows had moved on, and Mark Olberding, Mark Landsberger, Mychal Thompson and Osborne Lockhart had yet to arrive.
Flip Saunders was a freshman on the 1973-74 team and there’s another reason to lament the recent passing of this state’s No. 1 basketball man.
The first call to make when noting the passing of Norm Ellenberger, the New Mexico coach during the anything-goes ‘70s of college basketball, would have been to Flip … to have him talk about the night his mentor, Musselman, was tossed from The Pit by the officials.
The semifinals of the Lobo Invitational had been held on Dec. 28, with the Gophers defeating Bradley 73-68 and New Mexico thrashing Columbia 109-56.
As legend has it, Ellenberger and Musselman were sitting together the next night in a mostly-empty Pit during the first half of the consolation game between Bradley and Columbia.
Two men approached Ellenberger and started talking about their fishing experiences with Norm – the great time they had together that summer, and their plans for more fishing after this basketball season.
The men engaged in the laughing, back-slapping and fishing tales with Ellenberger were Glenn Barlow and Bob Korte. When they walked away, Musselman said, “Hey, Norm, aren’t those the referees who worked our game with Bradley last night?’’
Ellenberger nodded that indeed that was the case, and then said: “Bill, you better be 15 points better than us, because they are working the championship game tonight, also.’’
Stormin’ Norman, as they called him in Albuquerque and throughout the then-rugged WAC, had set the hook and he never hauled in a larger fish than he did The Muss that night.
Musselman was convinced from the get-go that his Gophers were going to get jobbed by Ellenberger’s fishing buddies.
This was a time when it took three technical fouls for automatic ejection. Musselman got his first T six minutes into the game, when the two-man crew of those days failed to call an over-and-back on New Mexico.
Over the next minute, The Muss detected two goaltending offenses against his guard, Rick McCutcheon, by New Mexico and he went after Barlow. The referee signaled another technical and waved Musselman out of the arena.
The Minneapolis Tribune did not have a reporter on the scene, but Jon Roe talked with Musselman the next day and then had the coach’s view in the Dec. 31 edition.
“When he gave me the second technical, he told me I was out of the game,’’ Musselman told Roe. “When he came back from the scorer’s table, I told him that he couldn’t kick me out because it takes three technical to put a coach out. [Barlow] said, ‘Well, then I gave you two at once.’ ‘’
The Gophers were being blown out before the flurry of technicals, and it got ridiculous after that. The final was New Mexico 102, Gophers 68, the first time a Musselman team – either that Ashland U. in Ohio or with the Gophers – had given up 100 points in a game.
Roe quoted unnamed observers as saying Musselman’s language toward the refs that started Barlow on his technical rampage was not what is “normally heard at a Mormon board meeting.’’
Musselman spent the rest of the game in a locker room with his wife and their son Eric … hearing the roars from a full house that loved seeing the Lobos humiliate a Big Ten opponent.
New Mexico had a fabulous group of athletes that went to the NCAA’s round of 16. The Gophers finished 6-8 in the Big Ten, before Musselman’s amazing freshmen arrived with a potential for greatness that was unlimited.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the NCAA investigators also arrived, and Musselman headed for the ABA’s San Diego Sails in the summer of 1975, and took Olberding with him. Landsberger also transferred to Arizona State.
Jim Dutcher had perhaps the best team in Gophers’ history in 1976-77 with Thompson, Lockhart, Saunders, Ray Williams and freshman Kevin McHale, but what it could’ve been with Olberding, Landsberger and no NCAA probation can only be imagined.
The Gophers had a routine scandal with Musselman, with many of the large number of violations tied to a “green car’’ that the NCAA counted in its report every time it left the parking lot at the athletic complex.
Ellenberger wound up with an all-timer of a scandal at New Mexico. The investigation there that forced him out in 1979 became known as “Lobogate.’’ The forged academic credits, payments for bogus junior college credits and other mischief led to an FBI investigation.
Stormin’ Norman was convicted on 21 counts of fraud and submitting false public vouchers. A kindly judge gave him unsupervised probation, and all counts against Ellenberger were dismissed in 1983 – the same year the Final Four (N.C. State) was held in The Pit.
Ellenberger had many friends in coaching, including Bobby Knight, who tried to help restore Norm’s reputation by having him as an assistant from 1990 to 2000 at Indiana.
As for the fishing angle, I always was skeptical of the legend of the 1973 Lobo Invitational. Now, I’m convinced, after Ellenberger’s death this weekend at 82. And learning that he spent the later years of his life at his cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and fishing the lakes and streams on a daily basis.