Why I miss the Clem Haskins era at the University of Minnesota

I recently posted this on the Gopher Sports Blog

Given the recent struggles of the Minnesota basketball program, it is difficult to look back and remember the success of years past. As we are approaching the 10 year anniversary of the last Gophers basketball team of significance, I would like to take this opportunity to look back on a coaching career filled with many victories, fewer losses, and a scandal that sent a basketball program into the Big Ten basement. Yes, I am going to write about Clem Haskins, the subject of my heterosexual man crush as a teenager.

Before the academic scandal broke out at the U of M, the Gophers spent much of the nineties building a nationally recognized and respected basketball program. Clem Haskins was the mastermind behind building the Gophers program, and he did so by recruiting some of the best basketball players in the state of Minnesota (Sam Jacobson and John Thomas), great players from other states (Quincy Lewis and Voshon Leonard) and ready to contribute junior college transfers (Bobby Jackson).

His teams always made the NCAA tournament, and one of them even made it to the final four. Watching a winning team at the University of Minnesota inspired many young kids to play basketball and many of them even dreamed of playing at the University of Minnesota. Kids from all over Minnesota and surround states flocked every summer to attend the Clem Haskins basketball camp, each excited to show off their basketball skills in front of the beloved coach of our local team. I’m not sure if I fit that profile while growing up, but I know one thing; I enjoyed myself both times that I had the opportunity to attend his camp.

Attending basketball camp during my youth was a great experience. There is probably nothing that I would rather have done while growing up. Where else can a kid experience living in the college dorms, eating dorm food with no parents to tell you what to eat (I had an ice cream cone with every meal), and play basketball for 8 hours a day! I had such fond memories of my time at basketball camp that I ultimately chose to attend college at the University of St. Thomas; the host of Clem Haskins basketball camp.

Everything about attending the Clem Haskins camp was surreal, and the experience was priceless. The only negative aspect of the camp was really something that was beyond control; the fact that we were required to play many of our games as “Shirts vs. Skins”.

You see, I was a VERY skinny kid all the way through 4th grade. Then I discovered Mountain Dew, Nacho Cheesier Doritos and a love for food. As a result, I spent most of my teenage years (and even adulthood) concerned about how I looked shirtless. It wasn’t a pretty sight! Let’s just say that I definitely had a nice “Mountain Dew Belly” and a budding pair of “boy boobs”. Playing shirtless was not a fun experience for me, especially given the cruelty of most teenage boys toward those who were different.

However, I soon learned that if you could play basketball well, the other kids would often look past your physical differences. All you needed to do was put the ball in the hoop and nobody would make fun of you. Fortunately, I was a good player at the time, and did well for myself on the basketball court at the camp. In fact, my teammates always enjoyed playing with me, because I was a team player, and I got a lot of opportunities to impress the coaches at the camp. I even had the opportunity to impress my hero, Clem Haskins.

It is not easy to impress Clem Haskins at his camp. This is not due to his quest for perfection in his pupils, but rather because Clem Haskins was NEVER AT THE CAMP! During a 4 day camp, we saw Clem for a total of about 15 minutes. 5 minutes when we arrive at the camp (and parents are able to see Clem in person), 5 minutes while we’re playing basketball during camp, and 5 minutes when the camp has a “graduation ceremony” for the players (another opportunity for face time with the parents).

So, during the course of a 4 day basketball camp, we only had a total of 5 minutes to impress Clem. I made the most of this time, and during a stroke of wonderful basketball playing, and dumb luck, I caught Clem’s attention. Shirtless and with complete disregard for my personal safety, I dove after a loose ball that was heading out of bounds. I got to the ball just before it crossed the line, and while I was still on the ground, I passed the ball to a teammate for an easy basket. I started to pick myself up to go down the court when I noticed that I was sitting at the feet of my hero Clem Haskins. I looked up at him with puppy dog eyes wondering whether I impressed him and he said to me “good hustle kid”!!

I impressed Clem Haskins! My head immediately started racing; “Maybe he’ll give me a scholarship!” “Maybe I’ll get an award for ‘camper of the year’!” Then I realized that I was an overweight white kid who was 6’2” and could only play the center position. It took me a while to realize that there aren’t any 6’2” centers in Division I basketball. Heck, there aren’t any 6’2” centers in Division III basketball!

After camp finished, and my hopes of being a future Gopher were dashed, I started to sit back and watch the Gophers even more closely than prior to camp. I watched nearly every game on television, and even followed their recruiting patterns to see who the University was recruiting.

In 1997, the Gophers had a great season, and were seeded #1 in the NCAA tournament. They were so good that they made it to the Final Four, ultimately losing to Kentucky in what I remember as the greatest Final Four in college basketball history (my favorite team, Arizona, ended up winning the championship and my other favorite at the time, North Carolina made the Final Four as well).

Not too long after they made the Final Four, an academic scandal broke out, implicating the basketball program of severe wrongdoing. An academic aide for the Gophers basketball team named Jan Ganglehoff came forward and announced that she had helped former and current basketball players cheat on their schoolwork. Several of the best Gophers players were implicated in the scandal, and many of them lost their scholarships.

They even showed the papers written by Ganglehoff on the news. One of the papers she wrote was for a player named Courtney James, and it was entitled “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: Same or different?” I distinctly remember this paper title for several reasons. First, I have always wondered why if someone smart is writing a paper for someone who is not very smart; wouldn’t they make the title grammatically correct? I also thought it was hilarious that a middle aged white woman wrote a paper comparing Malcolm X and MLK. That’s almost like me being the webmaster for a site about Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Oh, wait, I am :).

As a result of the scandal, the Gophers were forced to remove their 1997 Final Four Banner from Williams Arena. Also, any record books referencing the Gophers 1996-1997 season were forced to be deleted, and all of their games were forfeited retroactively. Last, my boyhood hero, Clem Haskins, was fired.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball team hasn’t been the same for me ever since. Say what you will about Clem Haskins and his tenure with the Gophers. Whether you agree or disagree with his recruiting tactics, his lax academic policies and the way his decisions left the Gophers basketball program in shambles, I think you can agree on one thing; his Gophers teams were a pleasure to watch!

I miss Clem Haskins.

About Jeff Sauer

I started blogging in the year 2000, and go in spurts of inspiration followed by long dormancy. I love writing, and your comments keep me going, so comment!

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