Gonzaga was the regular-season champion in the West Coast Conference in 1997-98. The prestige of the program at the time was such that, when the Zags lost to San Francisco in the conference tournament finals, they did not get a bid to the NCAA tournament.
One season later, Gonzaga made an upset run to the Elite Eight of the West Regional. That drama started with a 75-63 victory over a Gophers team stung by suspensions due to an academic scandal revealed one day earlier, and ended with a hard-nosed 67-62 loss to a Connecticut team that would follow with its first national championship.
I was covering the 1999 West Regional in Phoenix — a big reason being Minneapolis’ Khalid el-Amin was a UConn star — and landed a press-row seat directly behind where Gonzaga coach Dan Monson would sit (on the rare occasion he did so).
It was impressive watching Monson, a 37-year-old unknown before that tournament, take on UConn’s crotchety Jim Calhoun. As the Zags fought the favored Huskies for every foot of space on the offensive ends, Monson’s timeouts were never “You’re doing great” — they were always “We’re going to do this and win the game.”
The angst surrounding Gophers coach Clem Haskins and the academic fraud brouhaha lingered until Clem resigned on June 25. Athletic director Mark Dienhart was turned down twice by Monson with offers to replace Haskins.
Finally, on July 24, Dienhart was able to get Monson to agree to a seven-year deal with an annual guarantee of $700,000. That was five times what Monson would make annually on a 10-year contract he had agreed to with Gonzaga in April.
Clem was my guy and, in retrospect, it was a vastly overrated academic scandal (i.e., North Carolina), but he had to go in the environment of 1999. And that experience of listening to him coach from 3 yards away had me all-in on Monson.
It didn’t work out. By Season 3, we were tired of the NIT and hearing about Monson dealing with recruiting limitations, and by Season 5, we wanted him out after a 12-18 overall record and 3-13 (10th of 11) in the Big Ten.
Then, in 2004-05, junior college transfer Vincent Grier brought a huge impact, the Gophers went 10-6 to tie for fourth in the Big Ten, and then lost a first-round NCAA game to Iowa State.
When the Gophers backed up again in 2005-06, with a 5-11 record in a conference schedule that did not yet include the possibility of home-and-homes with Rutgers, the media and public alike insisted on a change.
The Star Tribune reported that athletic director Joel Maturi went to a second-round NIT game at Cincinnati with instructions from on high to fire Monson if the Gophers lost. They lost, but Maturi backed out and gave Monson a modest extension.
Monson was gone seven games into 2006-07, after a blowout loss at home vs. Clemson put the Gophers at 2-5. Reasons cited were Monson’s Big Ten record (44-68, .393) and also declining attendance at Williams Arena. The average for announced crowds had fallen a tick below 12,000 in 2005-06 and it was going to get worse.
And you know what? That was a better time for Gophers basketball, because there was a fan base to be mollified, there was howling at the moon as customers left the Barn after a bad effort and there weren’t endless excuses offered in the media and from the sporting public for failure.
We wanted Monson’s neck the year before he made his one Gophers trip to the NCAA tournament, and we insisted on it after the flop that followed. The fact Maturi didn’t have the guts to pull the chute and wound up giving him $1.1 million to leave a month into the next season … that was just Joel-foolery.
A dozen years later, we have a young coach in his sixth season, and he inherited a stronger roster than Monson did, and is coaching in a metro area that suddenly has classes full of big-time basketball prospects, and he gets to play Rutgers (often twice), and this has to be it.
This week’s abomination, a 95-68 loss at Illinois, put the Gophers at 3-3 in the Big Ten’s 20-game schedule. There are still plenty of wins to be had in a conference with more bad teams than good ones, and if he doesn’t get to 11 or 12 wins and return to the NCAA tournament, maybe finally win an NCAA game, it’s simple: Richard Pitino must be gone.
Miserable crowds, including a Big Ten opener with under 10,000 announced, a conference record that stands at 34-62 (.354) — in the name of Dan Monson, there have to be some minimal standards applied here again for Gophers basketball.