Clem Haskins’ first season as the men’s basketball coach at Minnesota was 1986-87. It was also the end of an era when Gophers’ season-ticket holders knew exactly what to expect even before seeing the official Big Ten schedule.
It was a 10-team league (thus, the name) and also the last season when the schedule was set up with travel partners. For years, Minnesota and Iowa would alternate opponents at home on Wednesday/Thursday and Saturday, and then alternate against a pair of opponents on road trips.
The Big Ten’s other “travel partners” in 1986-87 were Indiana-Ohio State, Michigan-Michigan State, Wisconsin-Northwestern and Illinois-Purdue.
There was one change to the Big Ten’s schedule that winter. ESPN’s “Big Monday” of games started its run on Jan. 5, 1987, with a Big East starting the night and the Big Ten following with a game scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Indiana’s Bobby Knight, among others, howled mightily about that late start, and the Big Ten declined to renew the “Big Monday” contract after 1991. It is rather hilarious to remember a time when coaches could win a battle with TV on starting times, when you consider that conference teams would now be playing at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve if Commissioner Jim Delany and the Big Ten Network thought it could provide an extra .3 of a ratings point in Newark, N.J.
The memory of 1987, the last season of a Big Ten schedule intended to provide consistency for fans and maximize the ability to attend classes for players, was the Gophers’ late February trip to Bloomington, Ind., and Columbus, Ohio.
I was covering that trip as both the beat reporter and as a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Gophers flew in Bloomington on the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 18, played on Thursday night, and then took a night bus ride the 225 miles to Columbus.
The Gophers were a ragtag bunch that season, and yet they had a chance to beat an Indiana team that would wind up winning the last of Knight’s three NCAA titles.
The key moment came when referee Sam Lickliter awarded possession to the Gophers when a loose ball went out of bounds. It was near the courtside press area. Knight rose up, stomped toward Lickliter and shouted at him profanely for the call.
Lickliter looked at Knight, hesitated, then walked rapidly over to Haskins and said he was changing the call. “Help me out here, Clem, I got it wrong,” Lickliter said.
Clem did not comply. He took off his suit coat and tossed it on the court. Lickliter was so embarrassed by what he was doing to mollify Knight that he did not T up Clem.
Indiana used that possession to get back to even and then won the game 72-70.
The Big Ten gave up its “travel partners” approach after that season, and a Sunday game or two started to appear on the schedule, and then Penn State joined, and then the Big Ten Network took over a half-dozen years ago, and the Williams Arena loyalists are more likely to get a game at 6 p.m. on a Sunday as one of those terrific Saturday matinees on which we were raised.
The additions of Penn State and Nebraska have been a boost for football, but those two traditional mutts of hoops have only weakened the basketball product.
Come next season, there will be 14 teams with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. Mike Ellis, the Gophers’ assistant AD in charge of basketball, was e-mailed a few questions on future schedules. He talked to the Big Ten office to check on the latest and provided these responses:
1. There has been no discussion at all regarding a divisional setup as in football.
2. The league schedule will continue at 18 games.
3. A school will play five home-and-homes each year, with the remaining eight teams played once — four at home, four away.