By Mike Gallagher
The Gophers basketball team got off to a good conference start on Tuesday, with a 75-70 win over Tailor Battle and Penn State.
The Gophers got a great performance out of Lawrence Westbrook, who matched his career high with 29 points.
In all reality, this was a game the Gophers should win nine of ten times, especially if they’re going to be in the top half of the conference when tourney time is upon us. Maybe the fact that the Gophers weren’t playing Michigan State or Purdue is part of the reason that the people aren’t focusing much on the game, but thinking more about what happened after the first half of it. It also could be the fact that the halftime events were monumental not only for the program, but for a man that was once a giant in this town.
The year was 1986, and the Gophers were coming off three consecutive seasons of six wins or less in the Big Ten. Looking desperately to become relevant in the conference again, the Gophers turned to a man who was fresh off Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors at Western Kentucky, Clem Haskins.
Haskins took his lumps at the U before he broke through with a 19 win season in 1988-1989, followed by an elite eight run the next year.
Haskins had more on the way for Gopher fans, as he brought the squad to a Final Four in 1996-97, and an NIT championship in 1997-98.
Then it happened.
The day before the Gophers were to face Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1999, the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a story centered around Jan Gangelhoff, the former basketball office manager at Minnesota, alleging that she had written over 400 papers for roughly 20 players at the University from 1993-1998. After suspending four players that had apparently been involved in the scandal, the Gophers lost to Gonzaga the next day, and things only got worse from there.
An internal investigation revealed a massive amount of NCAA violations by Haskins and his players. Pressuring professors to change grades, Haskins dismissing sexual harassment allegations against his players, as well as Haskins paying Gangelhoff $3,000 for her role in the cover-up were just a few of the violations Haskins regime had committed.
Minnesota was stripped of it’s records, personal and team, appearances in the tournament, as well as it’s treasured Final Four run, which will go down in history as having never happened. There was a self-imposed postseason ban placed on the program, as well as the school being stripped of five scholarships over the next three years and multiple recruiting sanctions by the NCAA, hurting the Gophers chances of getting back on the right track in a timely manner.
Had enough of that trip down memory lane Minnesota fans? As painful as it may be to remember, and as hard as you’ve tried to block all of this out of your minds, it came and smacked you in the face Tuesday.
It has been 20 years since that elite eight run of 1989-90, and since that still technically happened, the program thought it would be fitting to bring back the team that brought fans the last great memory that the NCAA couldn’t take away from them.
When halftime came around, the players from that team got the ovation they deserved. When the crowd fell to silence after the players were introduced, Tubby Smith gave a man that has been banned from the NCAA and hadn’t stepped foot near Williams Arena in ten years something no one else has.
A chance for forgiveness.
When Smith, who had pled for Haskins to come back for the celebration, announced Haskins name, the Minnesota fans gave him that. A standing ovation and a big embrace by his former players followed, and with that, a man that had embarrassed a program and been at the center of one of the worst academic scandals in the history of the NCAA, was forgiven.
Haskins has never publicly apologized for the scandal, his role in it, or the black mark it placed on the program. Yet still, fans found it in their hearts, and the program found it in theirs, to have him back and give him the remorse he had hoped for the last ten years.
Why? How? It’s truly a great gesture by fans and the program, but how could people bring themselves to CHEER for a man that had done all Haskins had done to the program as well as the school.
It’s really simple, because they’re fans of the University of Minnesota BASKETBALL team. They’re not fans of professors, of girls that accuse players of sexual harassment, or anything that’s going on off the court. Does Ron Artest still get cheered on the basketball court? He charged into the stands and attacked fans, yet fans still cheer him for what he does on the court.
Fans cheered Clem Haskins because he was at the head of basketball teams that brought great memories to people that follow the University of Minnesota’s basketball team. If you filled the arena with the board of directors of the school, women’s rights groups, and teachers, Clem Haskins probably would not get a standing ovation.
Yes, it’s true, time does heal all wounds, and that is another factor in the reaction to Haskins. If this had been a celebration eight years ago, would Haskins have gotten cheers? Doubtful. But the combination of those two factors is clearly enough for basketball fans to get past the fact that players and coaches weren’t honest or upstanding people off the court. It’s the nature of fans.
People that watch sports do it for entertainment, fun, and some, as a distraction from their real lives. So knowing that, why would you want to bother with bringing people’s real lives onto the court when they’re entertaining you? People still watch baseball even though some of the greatest to ever play the game have cheated. Fans minds will always take what you have done for them on the court or field and how you’ve entertained them, over what has happened away from the arena.
Regardless of why Clem got the reaction he did, looking at this on more of a bare bones level, what Clem Haskins did was wrong. He broke the rules in a number of different ways and in the end, jeopardized student’s educations and the real lives that they have to go out and live.
That being said, does everyone deserve a second chance and to be forgiven when they’ve made a mistake? Absolutely.
Clem Haskins should not have to live with this burden and a legion of people hating him because of it. Yes he acted irrationally and inappropriately and truly did dig his own grave, but he has not been able to return to the sport he has loved since. That’s an awful big punishment as it is.
The debate will rage on and there will be people on each side that know they’re right until the day basketball ceases to exist on this issue. But on one night, right or wrong, for 30 seconds, a man got to take a brief walk down the better part of memory lane, and feel some sort of forgiveness from those that once saw him as a god, only to see him fall to the lowest depths of the ocean.
For Clem’s sake, I’m just glad it was an arena full of fans.