Clem Haskins isn’t a martyr. He’s not entitled to a hero’s return.
A 20-year retrospective on a Final Four trip that never officially happened rekindled a debate over whether the University of Minnesota should honor Haskins’ 1997 men’s basketball team that brought so much joy and later shame.
The divide in public opinion is not surprising. Haskins’ comments were.
The coach who bears ultimate responsibility for one of the most painful episodes in Gophers athletic history sounded tone-deaf in practically begging for red-carpet treatment.
“Befriending me or making me feel welcomed back is very important, particularly to my players,” Haskins told the Star Tribune for that story. “The president and the athletic director, they need to reach out and welcome me back.”
Why is the university being cast as the bad guy in this debate?
Nobody banned Haskins from returning to Dinkytown. But the university isn’t obligated to fete Haskins and his ’97 team with a celebration.
Did Clem or anyone else forget about the devastation created by what the NCAA described as one of the worst academic fraud cases on record at the time? The basketball program turned the university upside down and made it a national punch line.
The scandal cost several people their jobs, including administrators who might not have had any clue about the academic shenanigans but had their careers altered because of it.
The university investigation cost $2.5 million. The FBI and federal government got involved. The NCAA placed crippling sanctions on the program.
This wasn’t a case of jaywalking.
To rehang a banner at Williams Arena in joyous celebration would brush aside everything that happened after that exhilarating postseason.
At least star guard Bobby Jackson, unlike Haskins, took ownership of his mistakes.
“If we could go back and do it again everybody would do it totally different,” Jackson said. “And you try to teach your kids how not to make the same mistakes you made as a young man.”
Time provides emotional distance, but it doesn’t wipe the slate clean. Just because the academic scandal is no longer a raging fire doesn’t mean the university should gloss over the stain. The basketball program — and entire athletic department — experienced fundamental change afterward and felt repercussions for at least a decade and probably longer.
Some fans argue that those transgressions pale in comparison to misdeeds at other schools and that NCAA enforcement is inconsistent.
Indeed, Baylor’s handling of sexual assault cases is far more deplorable and unforgiving. And yes, the ongoing academic scandal involving North Carolina athletes makes the Gophers’ paper-writing scheme seem minor in scope.
The NCAA is hypocritical, self-serving and not trustworthy. But that’s not the point. The Gophers were deemed to have engaged in systematic academic fraud involving many players that resulted in six seasons being wiped from the record book.
Nothing prohibits people from romanticizing the way the ’97 team played on the court while also recognizing that the damage inflicted brought harsh consequences.
Joel Maturi became athletic director two years after the crisis. He recalled a story this week that demonstrated the ripple effect.
A woman athlete visited Maturi’s office one day early in his tenure. She shared with him a comment made by one of her professors after she turned in a paper.
“Is this yours or did somebody write it for you?” the professor asked.
“That wasn’t fair to this young woman,” Maturi said. “But it’s the reaction to what had happened two years prior to that. The athletes and the coaches felt it. People in the department felt it. Boosters felt it. All I said is, ‘We’re going to do the right thing and time will heal the wounds.’ ”
Maturi said he’s sympathetic to both sides of the debate, calling it a “tough situation.”
“There certainly would be reasons that people could rationalize on both sides of that equation,” he said.
Fans don’t need a banner or reunion to remind them of the excitement they felt watching that Final Four run. Memories are powerful. But that works both ways. Nobody should expect the university to ignore the hardship that followed joy.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org