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Weeds: Dark memory of Gopher brawl

We all have memories. Happy ones, like births and weddings. Some not so happy, like accidents and deaths. Sports fans have all those, plus we have plays and games that stick in our heads.

A song came around on my playlist recently that conjured a memory. “Keep the Ball Rolling” is a fun little ditty from the Sixties. The memory that triggered is turning fifty. It’s not a good one. January 25, 1972, is a day Minnesota sports fans of a certain age will remember.

“Keep the Ball Rolling” played as part of an invigorating Gopher basketball pregame warmup that new coach Bill Musselman brought to Williams Arena for the 1971-72 season. It was a carnival-like mix of music and basketball skills. It borrowed from the Harlem Globetrotters, so of course there was “Sweet Georgia Brown.” “Rock Around the Clock” was there, too.

Musselman was only thirty that year. He’d had rapid success coaching high school and small college. He was a tactician, a basketball prodigy, and most of all, a master motivator. Hence, the pregame firing up players and fans. Gopher basketball had been moribund for years, playing in front of a half empty arena. By January of 1972, Williams Arena was not only sold out, fans were in their seats early anticipating the show.

There was coordinated ball handling, dribbling behind the back, passing by kicks and bumps, all timed to the music. There was a player juggling balls on a unicycle. It was part circus, part tent revival with fans as the congregation. On top of the pageantry, the Gophers were good for the first time in years. Musselman had brought in junior college recruits who clicked with the players there. With the young coach’s acumen, they were winning.

St. Mary’s took a school bus down to Minneapolis back then for a Gopher Day. We had tickets to a game at the “Barn” early in January. I was enthralled to be part of 17,000 whooped up fans. Cheerleaders, pep band, maroon everywhere: it was magical for a farm kid from Brown County.

On January 25th, defending champion Ohio State came to Minneapolis. Both teams were undefeated in the Big Ten and nationally ranked. That was not a surprise in Ohio; it was in Minnesota. It was the biggest basketball game at the U. in decades, maybe ever.

That night, I was at the scorer’s table for a St. Mary’s basketball game. Friend Bill Moran was with me. We were sophomores, keeping stats. Between us we had a transistor radio on the bench. During breaks, we checked the game 100 miles to the east. Holding the radio up to our ears, we tried to catch the score from Ray Christensen, the voice of the Gophers for time immemorial.

St. Mary’s was good that year, so it’s likely the Knights won. Bill and I ended up in the hallway after our game with a crowd gathered around our radio. I remember what we were hearing made no sense. Ray Christensen was describing a brawl, not a game. He was reporting perhaps the darkest moment in Minnesota sports history.

The Gopher-Buckeye game had been close, hard fought, and low scoring. It was physical, and the referees let a certain amount of pushing and shoving go. Luke Witte was the star center for Ohio State. A particularly rough elbow to Gopher Bobby Nix went uncalled right before halftime. That triggered name-calling as the players headed off the court together.

A back-and-forth game turned to Ohio State’s favor near the end. With 36 seconds left, they led the Gophers 50 to 44. Witte was fouled roughly and fell to the ground. Gopher Corky Taylor extended a hand to Witte. Taylor said later that Witte tried to spit at him, which Witte denied. Whatever preceded, Taylor pulled Witte up and kneed him in the groin.

What followed would be headlined “An Ugly Affair in Minneapolis” by Sports Illustrated. Gopher Ron Behagen ran out to stomp on Witte. For ninety seconds, basically a riot ensued. Mostly it was Gopher players and even fans ambushing and striking Buckeye players before referees, coaches, and police could subdue the chaos. The game was called off, three Ohio State players went to the emergency room, and a wonderful Gopher season was tarnished irrevocably.

If ESPN were around then, that violent minute and a half would have played in a continuous loop for days. There is grainy video of it to be found. It’s hard to watch. Behagen and Taylor were suspended for the rest of the season. Dave Winfield was on that team and repeatedly struck a Buckeye player. He would have been suspended, were he not just outside the film taken that night.

The “incident” received national attention. With the slower pace of media then, the Sports Illustrated article a week later came to define the event. A blow-by-blow description meant every punch lived on in print. The governor of Ohio called it a “public mugging.”

Blame fell squarely on the young Gopher coach. Musselman was known for intensity and pushing his players to their limits. Maybe beyond in this case. The pregame show that I loved was called a “Barnum and Bailey act” creating a fevered and frenzied tone among players and fans. The writer referred to the “loud, steady beat of heavy rock music played over the P.A. system.” I’m not sure “Keep the Ball Rolling” counts as heavy rock music.

The article noted slogans painted on the Gopher locker room walls. “Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat” certainly seemed to indicate an over-the-top approach. There were serious racial undertones in the story. That might sound different if written now.

Musselman coached the Gophers for three more years. I met him when he came to the Orchid Inn to speak at the KNUJ Player of the Year Banquet. Even in that setting, he was an intense and serious man.

Musselman went on to coach for three more decades, mostly in the pros. He won most places he went. He came back to Minnesota in 1988 to coach the expansion NBA Timberwolves. With a roster of “vagabonds and long shots” the Wolves won more than any expansion team had before. Some fans were upset. They thought the team should lose more to get a higher draft pick.

Whatever success Musselman had, the shadow of that January night in 1972 stayed with him. He suffered a stroke after coaching a game in Portland in 1999, which led to an early death at 59.

I’ve thought of another favorite Minnesota sports figure, Billy Martin, as sharing a place in my mind with Musselman. Both seemed consumed with competitiveness. Martin lived to 61. That their candles would burn out quickly is not a surprise.

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