Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Minnesota Basketball

When it comes to universities with problems in the athletics department, the University Of Minnesota basketball program must surely compete for one of the top spots in the nation.

The program has been in disarray for my entire lifetime, going back at least a decade before I was born, and I believe that this disarray is the reason why my father--as well as my brothers and I--cannot be deemed to be among the program's more notable fans.

The 1970's was the decade of coach Bill Musselman, who left the program in disgrace amid NCAA sanctions. The 1980's was the decade of coach Jim Dutcher, who left the program in disgrace amid more NCAA sanctions. The 1990's was the decade of coach Clem Haskins, who left the program in disgrace amid still more NCAA sanctions. I am surprised, given the long history of problems with the Minnesota basketball program, that the NCAA did not impose the death penalty. The only reason that the program was not closed down entirely was, no doubt, because the University Of Minnesota is a large school affiliated with a very powerful conference, the Big Ten. If Minnesota had been a small school in a small conference lacking influence with the NCAA, the program probably would have been ordered to be scuttled for some reasonable period.

Of course, the university fired coach Dan Monson very early in the current basketball season and turned over the remainder of the season to an assistant coach. Monson was the first Minnesota basketball coach to be fired for actually losing games--as opposed to his predecessors, all of whom left on account of one kind of scandal or another--for decades. What is wrong with the program, and why cannot the program be fixed? No one seems to be able to come up with satisfactory answers to those questions.

The Minnesota football program also seems to be in a state of perpetual disappointment (and the football coach was dismissed at the end of the 2006 football season, around the same time that the basketball coach, mid-season, was notified that his services were no longer wanted). One would think that the university would get its act together in the field of athletics.

The two Big Ten schools nearest to the University Of Minnesota do not suffer from the same constant array of problems, ethical and otherwise, that crop up here, over and over. The University Of Wisconsin seems to have its athletics department operating on a high level. The University Of Iowa seems to have its athletics department operating on a high level (although Iowa seems unable to get rid of basketball coach Steve Alford, whose departure is long overdue in Iowa City). I believe it is reasonable to expect that the University Of Minnesota operate on the same high ethical and achievement levels as Wisconsin and Iowa.

Perhaps the problem is that there are too many sports teams in the Twin Cities. In addition to college sports, we have the full spectrum of professional sports franchises here, and the pro teams generally receive the lion's share of the public's attention. Wisconsin and Iowa do not have a full array of local pro teams ciphering attention away from the Big Ten schools.

Lots of sports fans here have simply thrown up their hands in disgust with basketball at the University Of Minnesota. For many, Clem Haskins was the final straw--he was the third consecutive basketball coach to bring the program into disrepute and, by that point, they had had enough.

Many persons believed that Dan Monson, from Gonzaga, was the perfect man to restore respect to the program, but Monson was never able to duplicate his Gonzaga success in Minneapolis. I was sorry to see Monson fired, at least during the course of the season. Firing a coach during a season is never a good idea unless criminal activity is involved. Monson was a nice guy who just did not work out, but he should not have been shoved aside while the season was in progress.

I remember vividly the 1997 Minnesota basketball season, when the Golden Gophers won the Big Ten title and went to the Final Four. I was 16 years old at the time, and I was thrilled, the entire season, as Minnesota wiped out its Big Ten opponents, one by one, and marched through the NCAA tournament with ease (but needing a big comeback in the second half against U.C.L.A. to win the Regional final).

That was the first year I was home alone--my middle brother was in his first year of college--and my Dad and I went to every home Minnesota game that season, and we watched every away game on television. Dynamite would not have prevented us from attending and watching those games.

When everything later unravelled, and Minnesota's 1997 Big Ten championship was declared null and void, and its NCAA victories invalidated, I was hurt and offended. My Dad and I had enjoyed and celebrated what turned out to be a fraud, and I never got over that. It still leaves an aftertaste, even ten years later, and I have never become emotionally involved with the Golden Gophers ever since.

Now, when my Dad and I attend or watch a Minnesota game, it is always with a degree of dispassion, of remoteness, of distance. The Golden Gophers are not "our" team anymore.

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