By William Wilcoxen
June 25, 1999
A LOOK AT CLEM HASKINS'
life reveals some themes that warm the hearts of
Americans, and others that many would prefer not to think about. Born to
sharecroppers in rural Kentucky, Haskins' hard work and dedication led him to a
successful career in professional basketball. Always mindful of his roots, he
became a powerful influence in the lives of hundreds of young men as a
coach and mentor who passed along the values that had served him well. But
detractors suggest Haskins' influence became too powerful and the coach
perpetuated a college sports system that some say shortchanges many athletes
rather than helping them.
Growing up in Campbellsville, Kentucky in the 1950s and ‘60s, Haskins struggled
against the Jim Crow traditions that kept many doors closed to
African-Americans. He was the first black student at Taylor County High School
and his talents on the basketball court led the tiny school into the state
tournament. He was undisputably one of the best high school players in a state
crazy for basketball. But segregation's grip was so tight that University of
Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp ignored him and Haskins still feels that sting.
No, Adolph did not recruit me. A lot of people talked about waiting two
years or three years, they may integrate. That was kind of a slap-in-the-face
insult. But those type of things - at that time I was a pretty good basketball
player, I think my record speaks for itself. I was decent. But it was really
hurting to think that you could not go and play at a university if you wanted to
in your own state.
Snubbed in Lexington, Haskins instead enrolled at Western Kentucky University in
Bowling Green and led its team to the NCAA tournament in 1966. Next came the
NBA, where Haskins was a standout point guard with the Chicago Bulls. He also
played for the Phoenix Suns and Washington Bullets until knee injuries ended his
playing career in the mid-‘70s. He then returned to his alma mater as an
assistant basketball coach, then was promoted to head coach. His Western
Kentucky teams were successful enough to earn him a national reputation in
basketball circles, and in 1986, Clem Haskins was hired by the University of
Minnesota to re-build a basketball program tarnished by scandal.
Sexual assault charges against three Gopher players led to the ouster of
Haskins' predecessor, Jim Dutcher, and had many on campus calling for a coach
who would exercise more control over the team. Haskins filled the role. He had
spread manure on farm fields and made clutch free throws in rowdy NBA arenas.
His breadth of experience helped him become a father figure to high school
recruits from Thief River Falls to the Bronx. And Haskins impressed his values
upon the young men he coached. On the basketball court, that meant teamwork and
sportsmanship. Off the court, it meant neckties on road trips and no tattoos or
Haskins' teams won games. In 1997, the Gophers took the Big Ten championship ,then
marched into the Final Four in the NCAA's national tournament. Even as they rode that wave of success, guard Eric Harris said coach Haskins preached modesty
and humility to the Gophers.
Oh, yeah, well coach is a down-to-earth guy. He knows how it feels to be
the underdog, too. He just wants us to stay humble and stay how we've been all
season. We don't have big heads on this team and I think that's what's great
about the team.
Our next stop is Indiana. That's the Final Four. But we're
going to Indiana for one reason: to win two games and win the national
The Gophers played only one game in Indianapolis, a semi-final loss at the hands
of the University of Kentucky. In 1999, two years to the day after Haskins
spoke to fired-up fans at a Williams Arena rally, a former university office
manager spoke to the media about her contention that she wrote hundreds of the
homework assignments turned in by Gopher basketball players during a five-year
period that included the Final Four run. Jan Gangelhoff said she wrote the
papers because - at the time - she felt she was helping the students by allowing
them to pass their classes and stay eligible for the basketball team. Gangelhoff
said she had no doubts Haskins knew what she was doing.
There was a wall around men's basketball. And that was the retaining
wall around the house. And you did not get past that wall unless you were
allowed past by coach Haskins. And I have said this before and I will say it
again: I personally, from being a member of the family, do not believe there was
anything that went on in that program that Clem Haskins did not know about.
The woman who headed the academic counseling program for student athletes paints
a similar picture of Haskins' management of the men's basketball program. Elayne
Donahue, who retired from the university last year, says she was on the losing
end of a power struggle with Haskins. On paper, Donahue supervised the academic
counselor to the basketball team. But in practice, she says, it was Haskins who
controlled the counselor's activities. Donahue says Haskins had his own
philosophy of education.
His feeling was - the best way that I can describe it - was to do
things for students. If they don't know how to do something, you don't take the
time to teach them, you do it for them.
Haskins has denied participating in any cheating or rule-breaking.
Outside attorneys hired by the university are investigating the basketball
program and will report to U of M president Mark Yudof this fall.
Two days after the academic fraud allegations became public, the university
decided four members of this year's team who were among those implicated would
not play in a first-round NCAA tournament game, which the Gophers
subsequently lost. In announcing the decision to bench the players, Yudof
expressed concern for the seriousness of the allegations and for the reputations
of the coach and players.
We take this as serious, this is important and we can imagine fairly
draconian sanctions coming out of it if it turns out to be true. But as I said
yesterday, there's a first amendment - freedom of the press - there's also a
14th amendment - due process of law. And we're not going to try them
before we have all our facts.
Since March, pressure on the basketball program has grown, particularly as media
reports detailed the team's low graduation rate and gifts Haskins and his
assistants received from boosters.
Haskins has three years left on his contract with the university and has said he
wants to continue coaching the Gophers. But U of M general counsel Mark
Rotenberg has been meeting with Haskins' attorney this month to discuss a
possible buyout of the contract. A buyout would be expensive for the U of M. The
contract calls for Haskins to be paid more than a million dollars if he is
dismissed without cause.
When the investigation is complete this fall, the
university will self-impose any sanctions it deems necessary and will report
them to the NCAA for review.