Vivid memories of Minnesota’s ’97 Final Four
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Amid his blur of memories of Minnesota’s 1996-97 team, Quincy Lewis quickly recalled the crowds.
People packed cozy Williams Arena that winter. They surrounded the tarmac when the Gophers got off the plane after reaching the Final Four. They dropped everything to watch the games, still remembering now where they were at the time.
“I think everybody in Minnesota had a piece of it,” said Lewis, one of four eventual NBA first-round draft picks on the squad.
Exactly fifteen years have passed, and the Gophers haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since. And because of the punishment received for later-revealed rampant academic fraud that took place in the program, that run has been erased from the record books. The last NCAA tournament victory that counts is from 1990, when the Gophers went to the regional finals.
They lost in the NIT championship game on Thursday night, but they’re a long way from the type of captivating postseason run pulled off by the Final Four team. The lingering question with anyone in, around or interested in Minnesota men’s basketball is whether that can ever be repeated.
“It’s going to happen again. It’s just a matter of when,” said Mark Dienhart, the men’s athletics director at the time.
The mix of talent, confidence, toughness and personality of those players, plus on-court success still unparalleled in the program’s history, made that team among the most memorable of Minnesota’s major sports.
“The Twins won the 1991 World Series, but for someone in my generation it was really the first time being truly a part of this huge sports phenomenon,” said fan Ryan Bergan, a freshman at the university that year. “When ‘the Barn’ is really rocking, there’s no better place to watch a game, with the band and the student section going crazy. It was just pure passion that bled out.”
The Gophers finished 31-4 after losing in the national semifinals to powerhouse Kentucky.
“What people appreciated the most about that time was the level of intensity we played with. Everyone knew if you came to Williams, it was going to be brutal,” Lewis said.
Lewis and Charles Thomas brought energy and athleticism off the bench. Eric Harris was the steady point guard. Courtney James and John Thomas gobbled up rebounds. Sam Jacobson could almost jump out of the gym. And Bobby Jackson was maybe the best guard Minnesota has ever had.
Jackson had 36 points in the double-overtime victory over Clemson in the regional semifinals.
“Every time things got tense, you could see him smile and his eyes would widen a little bit,” Dienhart recalled.
Jackson, now an assistant coach with Sacramento after a 12-year playing career in the NBA, stopped by a Gophers practice last month when the Kings were in town to play the Timberwolves. Coach Tubby Smith asked him to speak to the team.
“I bleed maroon and gold. I had a great time there. People treated me with nothing but respect. It was a fun ride,” Jackson said.
The fun came to a sobering stop two years later.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press published an account of a former academic counseling office manager, Jan Gangelhoff, who said she wrote hundreds of term papers for dozens of men’s basketball players over a six-year span with the consent of then-coach Clem Haskins.
The fallout was severe, including scholarship reductions that hindered the rebuilding efforts of the next coach, Dan Monson. Haskins was fired. Dienhart was forced out, despite public support from several colleagues on campus.
This became more than a sports scandal — a story of manipulation, deception and cultural tension that won the newspaper a Pulitzer prize.
Jackson was one of the accused. He said he wishes he could go back and right those wrongs.
“Everybody who was involved was young. In college, you didn’t want to do your work. You tried to find the easy way out. I wish I could get my degree from the University of Minnesota,” said Jackson, now taking online college classes in his free time. “But at the end of the day you learn from your mistakes. I’ve got kids now, and I talk to them about education all the time and the importance of getting their work done. The NCAA had to do what it had to do, and the University of Minnesota had to do what it had to do. I just happened to be a part of that.”
Dienhart, now the executive vice president and chief administrative officer at nearby University of St. Thomas, said he’s still saddened by the way that developed.
“Because it involves people, at least in my case, who weren’t telling me the truth. So it has an impact on your life,” Dienhart said. “You have to overcome this to have the same positive view of human nature that you might’ve had at one time. What’s further disappointing is when you look at went on at that period of time, some of these kids were great kids who I think were perhaps led astray.”
Haskins, through Lewis, declined an interview request for this story. But Lewis, who was not part of the plagiarism, said he speaks with Haskins often.
“He would really love to find a way to clear himself,” said Lewis, who now works for the athletic department.
Judging by the crowd reaction when Haskins appeared at a reunion ceremony during a home game a couple of years ago, fans have forgiven him, at least. He was loudly cheered upon introduction.
“In my life, I’ve had a lot of thrills and excitement and a lot of great things happen to me,” Haskins said that night. “Tonight probably is the No. 1.”
So can Minnesota recapture that mojo from a team that was right there, at least for one winter, with the big boys of the sport?
The challenges are obvious, though there has been plenty of public griping that Smith has too many excuses for why the Gophers haven’t won more under his watch.
He’s asked for a separate practice facility to keep up with the competition and impress recruits. Eventually, 84-year-old Williams Arena will need to be replaced. Population migration to the south won’t help Upper Midwest schools in the long run, when most kids prefer to remain in a 500-mile radius of home. Minnesota doesn’t have the same access to local talent as Ohio State and Michigan State.
“Eighteen-year-old kids are not thinking about the number of Fortune 500 companies that are located in the Twin Cities when they’re being recruited. If they’re good enough to make a difference in the program, they’ve been socialized to believe that they’re going to make their living playing on Sundays or playing in the NBA,” Dienhart said.
There is also the pressure of playing in a crowded market with plenty of other sports and entertainment options. Gophers fans are just as prone to grumbling about underachieving teams as Buckeyes backers, but they’re far more likely to stop buying tickets.
But change can happen quickly. Minnesota is just waiting for the next Bobby Jackson. Oh, and a Sam Jacobson, too.
“Two good players and you’re right back,” Lewis said.