Recalling a great Gopher run now 20 years past

Erasing it from the record books does not erase it from memory

Inspired by TV One’s Unsung series, this multi-part MSR series shines a well-deserved spotlight on individual or group accomplishments that unfortunately have been overlooked, or perhaps even “forgotten.” This week the spotlight is on the last Big Ten champion.

Before the league instituted a post-season men’s basketball tournament in the late 1990s, the Big Ten champion had to run the regular season gauntlet in order to earn the NCAA automatic bid. As a result, the last “true” Big Ten champion to successfully do this was the 1996-97 Minnesota Golden Gophers.

However, due to later NCAA-imposed sanctions, not a mention of this is found in the team’s record books. No Final Four banner hangs in the Barn. Perhaps the greatest Gopher team ever seems to have been sadly forgotten.

The 1997 season might have been vacated, but not for this reporter. Nor can the governing body erase the memories of it.

This columnist’s 1997 seat card in Indianapolis (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

This team was built for brawn rather than speed. They had the Big Ten player of the year in Bobby Jackson, whose knee-high socks and tenacity stood out along with his grit. John Thomas and Trevor Winter were college basketball’s version of the Bruise Brothers and wore down opponents with their relentlessness on the boards and in the paint. And Quincy Lewis led a formable bench.

That working-class, lunch-pail group took hold of an entire state 20 years ago this weekend as the Gophers ended its historic season as national semifinalists in the 1997 Indianapolis Final Four. “The Gophers showed the nation just how much of a team they truly are,” wrote this reporter back in March 1997 for the MSR.

“There’s so much,” admitted Clem Haskins, the now-retired coach, named national coach of the year that season by the Big Ten, AP and Chevrolet, in a recent MSR phone interview when asked to reflect on his memories of that wonderful golden ride.

Like Coach Haskins, this reporter, who then and still covers the Gophers, finds that season’s memories too many to narrow down to one or two. Perhaps when the 6’-1” Jackson, the team’s leading rebounder, snatched a defensive rebound and went coast-to-coast for a layup on the other end.

Or his Dr. J-esque reverse layup against Kentucky in the semifinals at Indy. Or when the Gophers erased a seven-point deficit with 58 seconds left at Indiana to tie the game, then dominating the hosts with a 15-2 run, which later drew praise from then-Hoosiers coach Bob Knight.

Or the unbeaten home record. Or at Michigan clinching the school’s first conference title since 1972.

It was my first Final Four road trip, which included driving to Kansas City in an early March whiteout where I watched the number-one seeded Gophers defeat both Southwestern Texas State and Temple in impressive fashion. Later it was my first time in Indianapolis — I still have my NCAA-assigned “Row 101, Seat 4” courtside seat card where Minnesota lost to Kentucky. They finished 31-4 overall with a number-three national ranking.

“The majority of my players who played for me, I think I got the most out of their ability, and [they] reached their full potential playing for me,” said Haskins. “That I got the biggest joy and kick out of enjoying.”

Haskins’ Gophers the next season used the inaugural Big Ten tournament in Chicago to get enough wins to qualify for the NIT, where the team later won its second such title by the coach.

But it was a wonderful, memorable ride that took place 20 years ago, a ride that’s been all but erased from Minnesota Gopher history: the last Big Ten champion to win without a post-season tournament.

“I didn’t realize that,” said Haskins. “That’s good to know that whatever they say, that will always be there.”


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