Outside of the Herschel Walker trade, the most frequent reader request for further investigation off of our “great what-if moments in Minnesota sports history” series happened more than 70 years ago.
Talk about rewriting a lot of the past!
Writes reader Barry Y.: “Do you know the story of John Wooden and the Gophers? Due to bad weather conditions, the phone lines went dead causing the Gophers to lose John Wooden as their head coach. By far, the biggest ‘what if’ ever.”
Joe N. and Tim K., among other, had basically the same request.
So what might have happened if this particular bit of history was altered? Well, let’s examine the facts:
*First, as you might know (and as Barry suggested), there is a great back story to all this. Our own Sid Hartman has written about it multiple times – including nearly a decade ago, upon the death of Wooden at age 99.
As the story goes, Gophers athletic director Frank McCormick tried to hire Wooden as men’s basketball coach in 1948. The two sides had an agreement, pending McCormick getting approval from school president James Morrill to let Wooden hire his own assistant coaches – which was going to cost extra money.
McCormick obtained the approval, but bad weather knocked out phone lines – preventing McCormick from getting back in touch with Wooden to tell him. They were supposed to call at 6 p.m., Wooden said many years ago. By the time he reached him, it was too late: Wooden, thinking the Gophers had lost interest, had accepted an offer from UCLA, even though (as Sid wrote) it was the preference of Wooden and his wife to stay in the Midwest.
Wooden went on to win 10 national titles with UCLA. The Gophers … did not.
So would the Gophers have become a national power with Wooden? Would that have been their history? It’s possible. But there are other things to consider.
*When they failed to land Wooden, the Gophers had a pretty good consolation prize: Ozzie Cowles, a Minnesota native who was pried away after just two seasons as Michigan’s head coach – the second of which ended with a trip to the NCAA tournament (which had a field of just eight teams at the time).
Cowles actually had a really good run with the Gophers. In his first seven seasons after being hired in 1948, Cowles led the Gophers to a .686 winning percentage – pretty similar to Wooden’s .713 mark in his first seven years at UCLA after taking that job.
*Wooden was tempted in 1950 to take the vacant job at Purdue – his alma mater. But he decided to stay at UCLA to fulfill a three-year commitment and in reality stayed much longer of course. Maybe if he had taken the Minnesota job, it would have been easier for him to slide back over and take the Purdue job, depending on what the terms were here and how things were going. Then we might be talking about a different kind of regret.
*Wooden had strong seasons from the start with UCLA, but he didn’t win his first national championship until 15 years after taking the job – the 1963-64 season. Would Wooden have lasted that long, to realize ultimate success, in Minnesota considering no coach in Gophers history from 1948-present has lasted more than 11 seasons?
*All that said: It’s entirely possible that the stars might have aligned. Cowles had a lot of talent to work with on those Gophers teams – including Jim McIntyre, Whitey Skoog, Chuck Mencel and Bud Grant.
The Gophers never won a Big Ten title nor did they qualify for the hard-to-crack NCAA tournament field under Cowles, a defensive-minded coach. Perhaps the combination of their talent and Wooden’s coaching acumen would have put Minnesota on a path to greatness and multiple championships.
Let’s say Wooden would have coached the Gophers through the 1974-75 season, his final year at UCLA. The NCAA sanctions stemming from the Bill Musselman era in the early 1970s never would have happened.
Maybe the entire frustrating course of Gophers men’s basketball history, including the academic fraud scandal of the 1990s and the fits and starts ever since then, is altered? (Though, um, UCLA had an NCAA title game appearance vacated just a few years after Wooden left because of an eligibility issue).
This much is heartbreakingly true: Wooden won 10 championships with the Bruins. No other program in its entire history has won that many titles.
What if that was the Gophers’ history instead? Would there be a statue of Wooden outside Williams Arena right now?
It’s a valid question, and we’re left only to wonder.