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Gopher Ball
Alexander Wolff
March 03, 1997
A year after a snub from the NCAA selection committee, Minnesota is in line for a No. 1 seed
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March 03, 1997

Gopher Ball

A year after a snub from the NCAA selection committee, Minnesota is in line for a No. 1 seed

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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?"

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