22 years ago, Gopher Basketball marched to the Final Four

A dream season that now "doesn't exist" thanks to an Academic Scandal

Lindsey Peterson
April 05, 2019 - 11:08 am

Brian Bahr / Getty Images Staff

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"The road to Indianapolis is ready...it is now paved with Gold!" 

Those were the words of the legendary Ray Christensen on March 22nd, 1997 in San Antonio, Texas following a thrilling 80-72 win over UCLA in the Elite 8.  The Gopher Basketball team was on it's way to the Final Four where they would lose to Kentucky in the national semifinals (Arizona took home the title that year).  The Gophers ended their greatest season ever 31-4, 16-2 in the Big Ten.  Kentucky, Alabama, Illinois and Wisconsin were the only teams that beat Minnesota that year.  There was no title, but it was a dream season to be sure.  

Bobby Jackson, Sam Jacobson, Eric Harris, John Thomas, Courtney James, Quincy Lewis, Charles Thomas, Miles Tarver, Trevor Winter, Kyle Sanden, Kevin Loge and Russ Archambault.  All led by Clem Haskins.  It was a team built to be tough.  Jackson and Harris were defensive hounds for opposing guards.  The size of James and Thomas inside were overwhelming.  Jacobson, Lewis and Thomas were great wing players who could slash their way to the basket.  It was Bobby Jackson that was the heart of that team. 

"I think about family when I remember that team," center John Thomas told WCCO's Chad Hartman this week.  "We put aside personal aspirations towards the collective.  The collective goal for us was to make it to the pinnacle.  We didn't win a championship, but we got close enough to understand why."  

RELATED: Why they will and why they won't win at the Final Four in Minneapolis. 

The NCAA Tournament run started with an easy victory as a #1 seed against SW Texas State.  Legendary head coach John Chaney and Temple were a scary round 2 opponent but easily dispatched by the Gophers.  Then it was San Antonio for the Sweet Sixteen.

On March 20th the Gophers took on #4 seeded Clemson in an epic game.  Back and forth, all the way through 2 overtimes before the Gophers finally pulled away for a 90-84 win (that terrific game is available on YouTube if you want to relive a classic!).  Bobby Jackson was the hero, playing an unbelievable 49 of 50 minutes and scoring 36 points.  UCLA waited for a chance at the first ever Final Four for The U, and this team wasn't going to be denied.

Guard Eric Harris seperated his shoulder in that Clemson game, an injury he played through but definitely hampered him.  This was the era of Rick Pitino's Kentucky teams that pressured up and down the court for 40 minutes, forcing teams into a fast pace and turnovers. 

“You never forget something like that,” Harris told the Pioneer Press. “That ended up being the worst game we played all year. I’ll never forget that game. They were the better team that day. It’s as simple as that.”

With Harris hurt, the Gophers couldn't overcome 26 turnovers in a 78-69 loss.  But they never gave up.  This wasn't a team that went quietly despite one of their leaders at less than 100%.  It was still a dream season.

Thomas told WCCO that, "We didn't really know we were special until tournament time.  We were developing a rhythm, understanding each other's tendancies.  We were winning but took it one game at a time.  Coach Haskins did a good job of not letting our heads swell too much.  It's easy to get caught up in your own hype.  "

It was two years later, March of 1999, when first reports of an academic scandal involving the Gopher Basketball program surfaced.  Jan Gangelhoff, an office manager of the university academic counseling unit, alleged that she had completed hundreds of pieces of coursework for more than 20 Minnesota men's basketball players.  Former players including Courtney James and Bobby Jackson corroborated Gangelhoff's claims. Gangelhoff provided printed samples of coursework written by her and turned in by students.

Among other allegations by Gangelhoff: she was allowed to continue assisting players despite being caught in 1996 doing a take-home exam with a player, an assistant coach drove players to Gangelhoff's home for tutoring sessions in possible violation of NCAA rules, Gangelhoff duplicated the same work for different student-athletes to turn in to different classes, and coach Clem Haskins paid Gangelhoff in cash to tutor players.  The University of Minnesota began an investigation, suspending four players for the NCAA Tournament (this was one day before the Gophers were about to play an NCAA Tournament game against Gonzaga, a game they would lose).  

The whole program came crashing down.  The NCAA found massive evidence of academic fraud in the program, including direct ties to head coach Clem Haskins.  

There was a postseason ban, a reduction of scholarships, forfeiture of money earned and Haskins' contract was bought out.  VP McKinley Boston and Athletic Director Mark Dienhart resigned.  

Perhaps worst of all, that Final Four run along with all records and postseason appearances from 1994-1998 were wiped out.  They never happened.  All those players, in the eyes of the NCAA and University of Minnesota never existed.  

But for fans, it's different.  We have those memories. The thrill of those NCAA Tournament teams in 1994, 1995 and 1997.  An NIT Championship in 1998. 

And that '97 team was special. Ray was right when he said the road was paved with gold. Even if it no longer exists in the eyes of the NCAA.

 

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