Weeds: Dark memory of Gopher brawl

BleedGopher

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per Randy:

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.


Go Gophers!!
 



short ornery norwegian

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I met Clyde Turner many years later - he came into a store where I was working. I mentioned that I remembered watching him play for the Gophers, but we did not get into "the brawl."

As noted, Dave Winfield was lucky he didn't get suspended, and then he wound up starting for the rest of the season.

the sarcastic side of my brain is now wondering what that would have sounded like if Grimm and Spencer were calling the game, given Grimm's penchant for criticizing the officials.
 

jovs

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I met Clyde Turner many years later - he came into a store where I was working. I mentioned that I remembered watching him play for the Gophers, but we did not get into "the brawl."

As noted, Dave Winfield was lucky he didn't get suspended, and then he wound up starting for the rest of the season.

the sarcastic side of my brain is now wondering what that would have sounded like if Grimm and Spencer were calling the game, given Grimm's penchant for criticizing the officials.
I saw Taylor in a men's league game about eight years later, lived right up to my expectations, not surprised it happened at all after watching his schtick.
 



cemba99

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I listened to the game as well. Glad I did not see it live, only via the videos. Many ramifications that my OSU friends have not forgotten - standout OSU Coach Fred Taylor never really recovered from the incident (he felt no support and that the university, Big Ten and NCAA did not come down hard enough). Fred admittedly lost interest in coaching and retired 4 years later when he was only 52 (with OSU in last place in the B10). Luke Witte suffered a bad eye injury from the brawl that never fully healed - would hamper him throughout his short NBA career. Had Winfield's actions been caught on camera, I wonder if he would still have had an MLB career. I think that Musselman carried the stigma of the game the rest of his life as well.
 

Doc1001

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I was at the game and it was like a surreal dream. Never forget it. I remember before the game the electricity in the air was overwhelming. Everyone was ready for that game. And then,,,
 

Mulligan

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The memory I have of Winfield is seeing him chasing a Buckeye after a wild swing, who was running away at looked over his shoulder a couple of times. I didn't see Winfield throw any punches. Pretty sure "repeatedly struck" is not right. Hell, one punch from Winfield could put you away. Going home it was like, "Did I actually see that?" Never heard Ray sound so despondent when he came back on to recap.
 



sal

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I listened to the game as well. Glad I did not see it live, only via the videos. Many ramifications that my OSU friends have not forgotten - standout OSU Coach Fred Taylor never really recovered from the incident (he felt no support and that the university, Big Ten and NCAA did not come down hard enough). Fred admittedly lost interest in coaching and retired 4 years later when he was only 52 (with OSU in last place in the B10). Luke Witte suffered a bad eye injury from the brawl that never fully healed - would hamper him throughout his short NBA career. Had Winfield's actions been caught on camera, I wonder if he would still have had an MLB career. I think that Musselman carried the stigma of the game the rest of his life as well.
There was an article in Sports Illustrated after the incident (I don't recall the author) that summarized the two coaches and their involvement..." Fred Taylor wears no halo and Bill Musselman wears no horns". I tend to agree.
 

Lincoln gopher

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The fact that Ohio State was still an all white basketball team in the 70's probably says it all about Fred Taylor.
 

restovich

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Yes, there were a lot of racial overtones thattend to be glossed over every time this came up. The gist was (1) *everyone* in the Big10 was pissed at Musselman in general because he started 4 African-American gusy and only oen Caucasian (the "informal rule" at the time was purported to be 3 Caucasians starting......Musselman was young and did not give a crap what some stilly rule or guideline was). (2) the game was purported to have some form of racila taunting going on. Luke witte in an article many years later (he had gone into some type of Christian ministry) tacitly admitted as much when it covered some degree of the two teams (some players anyway) reachign for reconciliation/forgiveness. I believe Witte said soemthing like "it's not like our actions were without blame".

It is difficult to tell at this point; some of the protagonists are deceased.
 

cemba99

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Yes, there were a lot of racial overtones thattend to be glossed over every time this came up. The gist was (1) *everyone* in the Big10 was pissed at Musselman in general because he started 4 African-American gusy and only oen Caucasian (the "informal rule" at the time was purported to be 3 Caucasians starting......Musselman was young and did not give a crap what some stilly rule or guideline was). (2) the game was purported to have some form of racila taunting going on. Luke witte in an article many years later (he had gone into some type of Christian ministry) tacitly admitted as much when it covered some degree of the two teams (some players anyway) reachign for reconciliation/forgiveness. I believe Witte said soemthing like "it's not like our actions were without blame".

It is difficult to tell at this point; some of the protagonists are deceased.
While I do not want to have this devolve into an argument about who started who back in the 70's - I would trend lightly on the notion that "everyone in the Big Ten was pissed at Musselman because he started 4 African-Americans...." Michigan (at least, maybe others) routinely started 3 blacks in 1970-71 and their first 3 substitutes were also black - they finished 2nd behind OSU that year.

But with regard to everyone being pissed at Musselman - I have also read that (according to Sid, but other reports concur) there had been a "gentlemen's agreement" amongst Big Ten coaches that Ron Behagen should not be offered a transfer scholarship due to his reputation as a troublemaker. According to Musselman - if such an agreement existed, he was not aware of it when he became head coach,
 



GoldenRodents

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Boys will be boys...elite athleticism amplifies the damage.
 

restovich

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It's hard to wade through the racial things since this was so long ago. I was only a small boy circa age 10 listening to Ray on the radio. He sure was somber/unhappy.

But. An African American friends from back in high school days. Quote. "ask yourself why the Gophers' African American payers were SO MAD at the Buckeyes that day".

The Goperhers were assigned 99% of the blame. Witte in latter days implie that that was hardly fair,that the Buckeyes had contributed plenty........
 

go4rob

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I was at the game, sitting in the pep band and was no more that 30 feet from where it all started. It was like a bad dream. I remember a fellow band member putting down his instrument and wanting to rush onto the floor and I grabbed him by the waist and told him he could NOT do that. I also remember the elbow that Luke Witte gave Bobby Nix at the end of the first half. Clyde Turner rushed toward Witte and Mussleman jumped on Turner's back in order to stop him. I heard that the two teams had plenty of words down in the locker room tunnel on their way to their locker rooms. Had the fight broken out at that point, following the elbow to Nix, there is no doubt in my mind that OSU would have taken full blame for starting the whole thing. As it turned out, the whole thing festered during a very physical 2nd half and there was an uneasy feeling in the air that something was going to happen, and it wasn't going to be good. Little was said about the officiating. I thought the refs let the game get out of hand on both sides, especially in the 2nd half. It became more and more physical as the referees swallowed their whistles.
 

gopher7

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Along those lines, can anyone explain the situation with Bucky Irving's nickname?
 

GopherVotary

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There was an article in Sports Illustrated after the incident (I don't recall the author) that summarized the two coaches and their involvement..." Fred Taylor wears no halo and Bill Musselman wears no horns". I tend to agree.
Speaking of SI, a few years later I recall them doing an article on Winfield and the foundation he had in San Diego that helped underprivileged kids. A couple weeks later, they published a letter to the editor from the Buckeye he beat up, who didn’t agree Winfield was such a great guy.
 

go4rob

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Yes, there were a lot of racial overtones thattend to be glossed over every time this came up. The gist was (1) *everyone* in the Big10 was pissed at Musselman in general because he started 4 African-American gusy and only oen Caucasian (the "informal rule" at the time was purported to be 3 Caucasians starting......Musselman was young and did not give a crap what some stilly rule or guideline was). (2) the game was purported to have some form of racila taunting going on. Luke witte in an article many years later (he had gone into some type of Christian ministry) tacitly admitted as much when it covered some degree of the two teams (some players anyway) reachign for reconciliation/forgiveness. I believe Witte said soemthing like "it's not like our actions were without blame".

It is difficult to tell at this point; some of the protagonists are deceased.
I also believe that Witte and Corky Taylor became close friends in later years.
 

restovich

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I kind of recall that as well. Context I recall is Corky Taylor was not real comfortable talking about "the pase" e.g. the brawl but acknowledged the friendship. Seem to remember Witte talking about it a little more but being kind of reticient about the "game" itself. I think both guys did not want a great deal of attention/publicity.......
 




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