Willie Burton, in the golden days

Willie Burton, in the golden days

You may or may not know this date: Jan. 26, 1989. That was the last time the Gophers men's basketball team defeated a No. 1-ranked team, at least officially. Minnesota will get its latest chance at moving that date up a bit on Tuesday when it faces No. 1 Indiana at Williams Arena. For now, here is a Patrick Reusse column from that big win over the previously 17-0 Illini.



Rick Bay was introduced as the University of Minnesota's athletic director on Dec. 9. Within minutes, Bay was proclaiming the need for a modern basketball arena for the Gophers. It was clear that Clem Haskins had been able to get in some lobbying time with Bay even before the new man was on the job.

During Haskins' first two winters in Minnesota, the Gophers posted a 6-30 record in the Big Ten. Worse, there was no evidence that big-time recruits were willing to take a serious look at Minnesota.

There were a couple of obvious reasons: the university administration's decision to dismantle the roster after the hotel incident in Madison, Wis., and the subsequent NCAA investigation.

As if those weren't valid enough explanations for the inability to attract recruits off the top 100 lists, Haskins went along with the notion that high school seniors were turned away by the appearance of ancient Williams Arena.

If the Gophers were going to compete, they needed a new arena on campus or they would have to move downtown when Marv and Harv's Needless Arena is finished.

The Old Barn had to go, even though this is the same Old Barn that players such as Mychal Thompson and Sugar Ray Williams and Trent Tucker had said lured them to Minnesota. This is the same Old Barn that turns Kevin McHale or Darryl Mitchell downright poetic when they start talking about what it was like to play in there.

And now Clem Haskins knows what a wonderful madhouse it can be.

Through the efforts of Willie Burton and Melvin Newbern, a couple of recruits signed by Jim Dutcher, and Richard Coffey, a paratrooper Haskins found at Fort Bragg, N.C., Clem the Gem has found what it can be like when the Old Barn is rocking.

Twice in 12 days, Big Ten teams with Final Four potential entered Williams Arena on the upswing. The Iowa Hawkeyes, ranked No. 5, had been able to leave the Dean E. Smith Athletic Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. with a victory. They couldn't get out of Williams in the same condition, falling 80-78, overcome by the phenomenal performances of Burton and Newbern.

Thursday night, Illinois came to town, ranked No. 1 and, at 17-0, the only unbeaten Division I team in the country. The Illini went down more easily than did Iowa. They were beaten by Burton, beaten by Newbern, beaten by Coffey, beaten by the most appreciative crowd of the Haskins era.

They were beaten 69-62, and the Gophers deserved that margin of victory, if not a few points more. When a loose ball hit the floor, a Gopher was there first. When a ball came off the glass, a Gopher - usually Burton or Coffey - had boxed off his opponent and controlled the rebound.

The best players in Williams last night weren't Illinois' much-applauded forwards, Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson. The best player in the joint was Burton - 20 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, three assists. Newbern was close, with his 16 points and six steals, and Coffey, with 10 rebounds.

There was a moment when Anderson was frustrated enough to flash a hostile glance at Coffey. It looked as though Anderson was contemplating the possibility of slapping Coffey upside the head. Not a good idea. This guy is a man.

So are Burton and Newbern. Haskins has made them that way. Clem has taken these two kids, the only raw talent he inherited, and he has suffered with them. He has screamed at them. And now, he has won with them - two monumental victories in a January stretch that once again has turned dust-filled, splinter-filled, post-filled Williams Arena into a fun house for the home team and a house of horrors for the visitors.

"We call it our house," guard Kevin Lynch said. "We don't want anyone coming into our house and taking away a victory."

Lynch, a sophomore from Bloomington, said he wasn't a big follower of the team during the Gophers' golden age of basketball, 1972 through 1982.

"I was a fan of our high school team," Lynch said. "I only went to a couple of Gophers games here as a kid.

"To be truthful, I didn't think much of this arena when I first came to the university. I knew it had a lot of tradition and all of
that, but to me it was just old. Now it's started growing on me. The Iowa game and this win tonight have shown me how loud it can get. The louder it gets, the more we get into it. I'm sure Iowa and Illinois would agree that Williams Arena has again become a tough place to play."

"The facility didn't beat us," said Lou Henson, the Illinois coach. "The Minnesota coach and his players beat us. We outworked 17 teams to get to the point we were at, but tonight we were outworked by Minnesota. Sure, this is a tough place to play. That's not unusual in the Big Ten. They're all tough. It's loud, but they're all loud."

Maybe the Old Barn, when it gets rocking, only seems twice as loud as the new arenas with the theater seats. Still, I swear that it was so loud in there a few times in the second half that Henson had to put his hand on top of his head to keep the toupee from blowing away.