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CLEM’S GEMS : Despite Odds Against Them, Gophers Remain in the Hunt With an Odd Bunch

Times Staff Writer

Coach Clem Haskins and his Minnesota Golden Gophers--or, if you will, Clem and the Clemettes--are understandably excited to be here, deservedly proud to be here, and more than a little bit lucky to be here.

How these 11-time losers got to this point in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s basketball tournament is hard to say, because even Clem the Gem considered their chances precious and few.

“Back in October, the odds were something like 2,000 to 1 against us getting to the Final Four,” Haskins said Thursday, after a rehearsal for tonight’s East Regional game against favored Duke on the shiny new parquet floor of Brendan Byrne Arena. “If somebody’d bothered to ask my opinion, I would have made it 2,000 to 1 against us even getting this far.”

We are talking about a Minnesota squad that put together a sorry record of 6-30 in Big Ten conference play under Haskins during his first two seasons, 1986-87 and ’87-'88. We are talking about a Minnesota team this season that did not win a single Big Ten game on the road--not even at Northwestern--until the very last gig, March 11 at Ohio State, and only after Buckeye superstar Jay Burson’s season-ending injury.

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We are talking about a Minnesota program, pre-Clem, that had been devastated by sexual-assault charges against several athletes, resulting in the eventual departure of Coach Jim Dutcher, the fall guy, even though many of the charges were later reduced or tossed out. To be blunt, Gopher basketball had gone down a hole.

School officials needed a good man to take over, and needed him in a hurry.

“It happened so quick,” Haskins said. “I turned the job down twice, and, to be perfectly honest with you, if I’d had more time to think about it--two or three days more, even--I probably wouldn’t have taken the job.”

So, why did he take it?

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“Because I felt they needed somebody like Clem Haskins,” said Clem Haskins.

Even so, the new coach nearly bit off more than he could chew. First, he had to re-recruit most of Dutcher’s players, simply to persuade them to stay. He also had to come in cold from his coaching position at Western Kentucky and try to persuade blue-chip prospects to come to Minneapolis, even though the weather was frightful, the house--Williams Arena--was crumbling and and the competition for recruits was ferocious.

The Gem had little to work with, once he got there.

“How many games did we win my first year?” he asked, turning to an assistant coach. “Nine?

“Well, that was nine more than I expected to win.”

This season, it’s up to 19. Yet the Gophers were only 16-11 when they got to Columbus for the final date on their schedule, and had they not won that game, 78-70, chances are Ohio State would not be stuck playing in the National Invitation Tournament right now, and Minnesota would. It is unlikely the NCAA would have invited six Big Ten teams, even though Minnesota had defeated the likes of Illinois, Michigan and Iowa.

They are an odd bunch, these Gophers.

There is co-captain Richard Coffey--a 23-year-old junior. Coffey, a 6-foot-6 forward who hails from the one-stoplight town of Aurora, N.C.--where Duke’s team is a far sight more popular than Minnesota’s--spent three years in military service as an airborne ranger. He got his discharge on Sept. 26, 1986, and enrolled at Minnesota on Sept. 27.

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There also is Willie Burton--the man in the mask. Since having his nose broken in the first Ohio State game, the 6-7 junior forward from Detroit has worn a protective face mask that may be practical but is, to say the least, pretty silly looking. Even Burton has taken to calling himself “Jason,” after the goalie-masked creep in the “Friday the 13th” movies, and of late, Gopher fans have taken to wearing masks in the bleachers.

There also is Walter Bond, a 6-5 sophomore guard from Chicago who prepared for college basketball by being president of his high school journalism club. Bond might be in for a long evening tonight when he is assigned defensively to Duke’s 6-10 All-American, Danny Ferry, as Haskins elects to go with quickness over strength.

On the plus side, the Gophers do have Clem Haskins--and his darling Clemette.

The coach’s daughter, 23, a three-time All-American who twice led Western Kentucky to the women’s Final Four, has done some scouting work for her father lately. She can tell him something about Danny Ferry. As children, they played H-O-R-S-E against one another when Clem played for the Washington Bullets, whose general manager is Bob Ferry, Danny’s dad.

So, the Gophers do have something going for them.

They also believe in themselves.

The cocksure Burton, for example, calls himself and Coffey “the best 1-2 rebounding punch in the nation, and I mean anywhere.” He said the biggest trouble he and Coffey often have is deciding which one of them should grab the rebound.

Told that Burton considered the two Gophers unmatchable underneath the boards, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski did not disagree.

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“I’ve seen them in games where they were unmatchable,” he said.

Haskins knows, though, that his players might be in over their heads. They are this regional’s 11th-seeded team. Duke’s record is 26-7. The Blue Devils are considerably taller up front, although Minnesota has bigger guards. And part of that famous 1-2 board punch, Coffey, has missed the last eight games with a knee injury.

Still, even without Coffey, the Gophers advanced through the tournament by beating Kansas State and then Siena, conqueror of Stanford. They cannot be taken too lightly--particularly coming, as they do, from the Big Ten.

“We’re not just here to play a game,” Haskins said. “Most everybody has picked us to get beat by 10 to 15 points, so you’re not expecting too much from the Gophers. We’re here hoping to convince you we can play in this company.

“It’s true that we don’t have the sort of blue-chip athletes Duke does. You take Walter Bond. Two years ago, Walter Bond couldn’t catch a ball and bounce it two times without turning it over. Now he’s going to be out there going head-to-head against Danny Ferry. It’s players like him, players who worked to improve, who made this day possible.

“You call us giant-killers. Go ahead. But we beat Illinois, and Michigan, and took Indiana to the wire. So, we’re not afraid of anybody. I have great confidence in my ability to coach, and I want that to rub off on my players.”

It does.

Senior guard Ray Gaffney said: “We didn’t feel we had trouble playing on the road. We had trouble because we were playing in the Big Ten. Any game in that league is as tough as any tournament game.”

Gaffney is effusive in his praise of Haskins, saying he gathered together lost lambs and turned them into a tight pack.

“He came into a tough situation where there had been a big misunderstanding, blown far out of proportion,” Gaffney said. “Coach Haskins picked up a group of confused young players and turned them into a team, a family. He brought stability to the program, turned it completely around. He’s why we’re here.”

Haskins did get down. The losing got to him sometimes. He thought about leaving. His name was even mentioned for the Arizona State job, and if Purdue’s Gene Keady and Michigan’s Bill Frieder both had rejected it, Haskins, who once played for the Phoenix Suns, might have been tempted.

Haskins has gotten around, but mostly he feels at home in Kentucky, where he intends to retire someday to the farm he owns.

Before coaching at Western Kentucky, Clem the Gem was a famed player there, as well-known in his neck of the woods as Wilt the Stilt or Pistol Pete were in theirs, carrying Hilltopper teams to a record of 66-15 over three seasons and becoming the Ohio Valley Conference’s only three-time player of the year.

Before that, Haskins came to attention as the only black student at Taylor County High School in Campbellsville, Ky., a situation he chose for himself.

“They didn’t pick me. I picked them,” he recalled.

Haskins eventually went third, to Chicago, in the 1967 National Basketball Assn. draft, ahead of such guards as Walt Frazier of Southern Illinois and neighboring Kentucky’s slick Pat Riley, and had a fine career with the Bulls, Bullets and Suns before returning to his alma mater to coach. The first and last Western Kentucky teams Clem coached both made it to the NCAA tournament.

Now, he has made it again.

With a Cinderella team? Having a fairy-tale season? People already are hauling out those hackneyed expressions.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales,” Haskins said. “I believe in guys who bust their butts. I believe in guys who want something and go after it.”

That’s what Gophers do. They go for things. Tonight, they go for more.

East Regional Notes

Duke vs. Minnesota has a 4:40 p.m. (PST) tipoff, followed by top-seeded Georgetown (28-4) vs. North Carolina State (22-8). . . . Illness update: Georgetown guard Charles Smith, still running a fever, missed practice for the second consecutive day, but is expected to play. “I suggest soup, bed rest and two weeks off,” joked N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano. Asked what he would do if Smith could not play, Georgetown Coach John Thompson said: “Protest Proposition 42. It would be a good time for me to walk out, don’t you think?” . . . Duke guard Quin Snyder is being troubled by migraine headaches, but also will play. “I don’t know anything about migraines, but I can tell when he’s not having any fun out there,” teammate Danny Ferry said.


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