GOPHER BALL A YEAR AFTER A SNUB FROM THE NCAA SELECTION COMMITTEE, MINNESOTA IS IN LINE FOR A NO. 1 SEED

March 03, 1997

In a sport clogged with Rodney Dangerfield acts, Clem Haskins's
may be the longest running. He has spent most of the last decade
publicly campaigning for the respect he believes he and his
Minnesota Golden Gophers haven't gotten. Last season he ripped
the NCAA for neglecting to invite his 18-12 Gophers to its
tournament. He has lit into Twin Cities radio talk-show
kibitzers who criticize his coaching, calling them jobless
losers. And after a win over Indiana five years ago he
complimented himself for "one hell of a job," presumably because
he didn't think anyone else would.

A moment last week suggested that Haskins may finally feel more
secure and respected. On Friday, the day before Minnesota was to
clinch at least a tie for its first Big Ten title in 15 years
with a 67-66 victory over Illinois, Haskins had just slipped
into a booth at a Perkins restaurant in suburban Minneapolis
when a waitress dumped a plate of pancakes on him.

Anyone in that position would have been entitled to a fit of
temper or at least to lapse into sullen annoyance. Instead
Haskins flashed a turn-the-world-on smile that Mary Richards
would have envied and consoled the mortified waitress by saying,
"Life goes on." When you're 24-2 and poised to grab a No. 1 seed
in the tournament that so recently spurned you, a dis is just a
dis.

A hankering for his props may be the only thing Haskins, 53, has
in common with the tattoo- and jewelry-bedecked members of
Generation X who populate college basketball nowadays. "Kids
today are entirely different," he says. "Some who can't make two
free throws in a row think they're going to be driving a
Rolls-Royce one day. From junior high on up, coaches have sold
out. They've given in to the earrings, the hairdos, the baggy
pants--things in our society that aren't right.

"I have changed some. I know I have a couple of kids who wear
earrings behind my back. A few years ago I wouldn't have had
them on my ball club."

Haskins is still old school enough to call his team "my ball
club." He grew up as one of 11 children on a farm in
Campbellsville, Ky., before going on to be an All-America at
Western Kentucky. He played nine seasons in the NBA, including
three with the Jerry Sloan Chicago Bulls, which, unlike the
Dennis Rodman Bulls, did not accessorize, although Haskins
confesses that he wore a rubber band on his wrist "because Wilt
did."

With that pedigree, he could have no more felicitous team than
his current "ball club." These Gophers are more likely to take
out the trash than talk it. They lead the Big Ten in assists. No
player averages as many as 15 points a game, but nine play
double-figure minutes, and (could there be a connection here?)
together they sit at No. 2 in the AP poll, Minnesota's loftiest
station ever. "The only reason we have five starters," says one
of them, point guard Eric Harris, "is because five players have
to start."

Harris is a newly confident Gopher, which he attributes to
encouragement and counsel from another New York City-bred
Minneapolitan, Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Stephon Marbury.
Over the summer Marbury reminded Harris that he had hated to be
guarded by Harris when they had played back home. Joining Harris
in the backcourt is Bobby Jackson, who has the look and life
story of a basketball bluesman. A junior college transfer who
has come back from a torn ACL in his right knee and a stress
fracture in his left foot, Jackson is the likely Big Ten player
of the year. Even though he stands only 6'1", Jackson ranks in
the top 10 in the conference in scoring, rebounding, assists,
steals, field goal percentage and free throw percentage.

The Gophers also start two Twin Citians who were regulars at
Haskins's basketball camp from the time they were in elementary
school. One is 6'9", 275-pound John Thomas, the voluble center
whose two free throws with 4.7 seconds remaining defeated
Illinois, the only Big Ten team with a win over Minnesota this
season. The other local guy, swingman Sam Jacobson, was a key
figure in perhaps the biggest Gopher game all year, a 96-91
overtime victory at Indiana on Jan. 8. Haskins thought Jacobson
had picked up his fifth foul with 4:30 remaining and the
Hoosiers leading by eight, so he sent in a sub and had Jacobson
sitting beside him. When Haskins's son, Brent, a Minnesota
assistant, pointed out that Jacobson still had a foul to spare,
Jacobson was hurried back into the game. He nailed a three as
the Gophers rallied from seven points behind in the final minute
of regulation and scored the first six points of OT to spark the
win.

It's the Gophers' fifth starter, forward Courtney James, who
sheds the most illuminating light on Minnesota's coach. Haskins
now owns a 500-acre farm in Campbellsville, which includes the
land he grew up on, and during a recent visit there several mice
scurried from under some wheat straw and across the barn floor.
James, who's from the more citified precincts of Indianapolis,
lifted his six feet, eight inches and 270 pounds with a start.
Haskins lunged with a pitchfork, impaled one of the creatures,
flung its carcass away nonchalantly and said, "You didn't know I
was crazy, did you?"

Given Minnesota's star-crossed basketball history, Haskins had
to have been a little nuts to leave Western Kentucky, where in
the mid-1980s he was ensconced as coach. In 1948 John Wooden had
agreed in principle to accept the Gophers' coaching job; all
that remained was a call from administrators to finalize their
offer. But when no call came, and UCLA then phoned to make an
offer of its own, Wooden, thinking Minnesota had decided on
someone else, agreed to become the Bruins' coach. Moments later
the Gophers' athletic director called to explain that a
snowstorm in the Twin Cities had prevented him from telephoning
at the expected time. Wooden told Minnesota that he was sorry,
but he had agreed to coach UCLA and wouldn't go back on his
word. Were it not for a meteorological fluke, the Wizard of
Westwood would have been the Magician of Minneapolis.

Gopher basketball has suffered through other regrettable
episodes. Last January marked the 25th anniversary of the
notorious brawl during a game with Ohio State, for which
Minnesota, then represented by coach Bill Musselman's musclemen,
was responsible. Then there were the 1976-77 Gophers, who won 24
of 27 games behind stars Mychal Thompson and Ray Williams. That
team is in the books as 0-27 because Thompson sold his
complimentary game tickets in violation of NCAA rules. And when
Haskins took over in '86, three Gophers had just been involved
in an incident that led to rape charges. Even though the players
were acquitted, factions on campus questioned whether the
players should be permitted to live in the dorms. Haskins says
that had he known how divisive that dispute would get, he
wouldn't have taken the job.

Yet the freshmen on his first team, which went 2-16 in the Big
Ten, came within a jump shot of going to the Final Four as
seniors. It was an astonishing turnaround. "The school thought
it'd hired a Band-Aid," says Haskins's wife, Yevette, "and found
out it had a surgeon."

But through the early 1990s, with expectations suddenly
elevated, the Gophers always seemed to fall short of meeting
them. Before this season Minnesota had won exactly 20 conference
road games in Haskins's 10 seasons, which is remarkable, seeing
as a team can get halfway to that total simply by winning at
Northwestern. Still Haskins consistently invoked the R word, and
to some in the local press he sounded like a man insisting that
mediocrity was laudable. "They'd finish fifth in the Big Ten and
make the NCAA tournament, and we were supposed to have a parade
for him," says Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick
Reusse. "The big change this year was that he was predicting a
Big Ten title in August. My theory is that Clem was around NBA
guys all summer [as an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team] and
learned to woof."

In fact, as eager as he is for the spotlight to be shone his
way, Haskins is reluctant to step into it when the opportunity
comes along. "People have said I complain," he says. "I don't
complain. I just say corny things sometimes to get people to
write about us. Clem Haskins didn't get passed over last spring.
The University of Minnesota did."

Haskins has no better case than that snub. Even though Minnesota
had won seven of its last nine games, even though the NCAA
tournament selection committee always blathers about how
late-season success counts more than wins in December, even
though Wisconsin had made the field two years earlier with an
8-10 conference record, the Gophers became the first Big Ten
school since the tournament field expanded to 64 to go 10-8 in
the conference and fail to get a bid. "Now, you want to talk
about right and wrong?" he says. "That was wrong. You know as
well as I do we haven't gotten the recognition we deserve.

"The key word is respect. It's what I've always fought for in my
life."

A case in point was the campaign he waged last summer to win
over the members of Dream Team III. First, while the players
stretched, he would shoot hoops--lazily but conspicuously,
trying to lure one or two into challenging him to a shooting
game called Seven-Up. When a Gary Payton or a Charles Barkley
took the bait, the old man would hold his own and sometimes beat
them. After a while he felt he had the bona fides to appeal to
them to take off their earrings and gold chains for team
pictures. Soon the players were approaching him unbidden,
vouchsafing to him their jewelry. "It's not that they didn't
wear the earring because I told them not to," he says. "They did
it out of respect."

Haskins's touch is as deft with teenagers as with pros. He
coached Marbury on the 1994 select team that represented the
U.S. in the world junior championships qualifying tournament.
Even though Minnesota was in the process of recruiting Marbury,
Haskins was so dissatisfied with his defense that he barked at
him, prodded him, even kicked him out of practice. After the
team won the gold medal in Argentina, Marbury tearfully embraced
Haskins. Now he's a regular at the Haskinses' house in suburban
Minneapolis. When Marbury came by for Christmas dinner, Yevette
went to answer the door and found him removing his earring.

The rewards of getting through to the Marburys of tomorrow will
tempt Haskins to fulfill the five years left on his contract.
Then again, a scare Haskins suffered two summers ago--a 90%
blockage of an artery from his heart that required an
angioplasty--could send him to his Campbellsville spread much
sooner. "If this is going to be it for me physically, I want to
go while I'm on my farm, close to nature," he says.

When he leaves, he'll be missed by more than just his players.
Others in the Minnesota athletic department drop by his office,
looking for the balm of Haskins's throwback wisdom. "I've heard
every kind of problem," he says. "Social, marital, financial. I
tell my wife I'm going to open a practice. But there aren't
enough hours in the day." He feels guilty when he heads for
Kentucky for three weeks every May to get the first hay in, at
the very time the requests for appearances at spring charity
events start coming into his office. "It's hard for me to say
no," he says. "It's just two letters, but it's the toughest word
in the dictionary."

Except when it comes to his favorite nos: no tattoos, no
earrings, no stars, no prisoners. And now, no more invoking the
phrase "no respect." Besides, the Gophers can't have a chip on
their shoulders anymore. They may need space there to carry
their coach off in triumph.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER James (4), Jacobson (5) and Thomas had the joint jumping as the Gophers held off the Illini. [Courtney James, Sam Jacobson and John Thomas in game against University of Illinois] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Face it: Jackson has been the Big Ten's top player. [Bobby Jackson shooting basketball over opponent's outstretsched hand] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Haskins, still a farmer at heart, said before the season that the Gophers had the horses to win the Big Ten. [Clem Haskins riding horse]

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