Off the court with Clem Haskins

by Todd Zolecki

Clem Haskins won’t apologize for who he is. He never has. The Gophers men’s basketball coach has been in the game far too long to start worrying about what people think of him now.
Since 1986, Haskins has paced up and down the Williams Arena sideline, bringing success to a program he inherited in shambles. In that time, he led the Gophers to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, and won a National Invitational Tournament title. He also coached on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
His name is synonymous with Minnesota basketball. He’s most recognizable as the fiery competitor who demands respect and maximum effort from his players. And his antics from the bench, from throwing off his jacket to cajoling the referees, are famous.
Still, through all the success and all the acclaim, he’s one of the least understood personalities in the state. He’s a proud, reserved man who said he would rather keep his public life separate from his private one.
Some say that’s hurt him. His lack of willingness to open up and show the not-so-serious side doesn’t reveal the real Haskins.
“I would say he has a good understanding of who he is and where he has come from,” his daughter Clemette said, who is the head women’s basketball coach at Dayton. “I don’t think he has to apologize for that. And I don’t think he really cares how he is perceived as long as he knows that what he is doing is right.”
And as Minnesota continues what could be its finest season ever under Haskins (the Gophers are 19-2, the sixth-ranked team in the country and are seeking their first Big Ten title since 1982) he said he doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. He’s at home on the court, watching film and motivating players in the locker room, not talking to the media.
“He is a lot of fun,” Purdue coach Gene Keady said. Haskins served as an assistant coach under Keady at Western Kentucky from 1978 to 1980. “He doesn’t take himself seriously. When you’re around him on a social basis he’s different, like a lot of people take me wrong if you watch my face.”
At home Haskins is at ease and rarely talks about work, unless someone in the family brings it up. He loves to tell stories, a skill Clemette said he picked up from his father.
“It’s one of those things where as I get older I appreciate him even more; the sacrifices and the things he had to deal with when he was growing up and the man he is today,” Clemette said. “He likes to have fun and he likes to laugh.”
Haskins laughed last week while recalling the story of his first recruiting trip for Keady at Western Kentucky, in which he signed a 7-foot-tall center before seeing him in action. Later that afternoon, watching a scrimmage, he discovered his first new recruit couldn’t play.
Haskins’ eyes lit up, he cracked a smile and enthusiasm came from his voice. He let out a few deep, hearty laughs. By the end of the story, a small group had gathered around him, hanging on every word.
That’s the side most people don’t know. They know Haskins’ intense side.
“He’s working,” Keady said. “He doesn’t like to get beat. Getting beat isn’t very funny, but this year he should be laughing a little bit, I think.”
Not right now. Haskins wants to stay focused. If it seems like he’s the only one not enjoying this season it’s because he isn’t. He has too much to worry about, like the Gophers’ next game against Penn State on Wednesday.
Maybe that’s why he always seems on edge.
It seems questions regarding his team’s road record are always coming up. And he hasn’t forgotten the criticism he received last year about his substitution patterns. He grimaces when such things are mentioned. He doesn’t like it, and he doesn’t understand it either.
“I would probably say he’s a little more excitable than I am,” Atlanta Hawks head coach Lenny Wilkens said with a chuckle. Wilkens and Haskins coached the 1996 U.S. Olympic team together. “He’s much more demonstrative. I get upset over situations too, but you don’t see it as much. You know the very instant he’s upset.”
That’s Haskins’ style. Once an offensive force in college and the NBA, Haskins wants his teams to be intense. He wants them to play aggressive defense, and he wants them to be careful with shot selection.
Keady said it wasn’t always that way. He remembers his first year with Haskins at Western Kentucky.
“When I first took over, we were pretty rigid in shot selection,” Keady said. “Clem came from the pros, and he wanted us to be a little bit looser and let them shoot more. He was a little uptight about us clamping down the kids’ shot selection. But now, hell, he’s worse than I am.”
Haskins said he has taken styles and philosophies from each coach from whom he has been associated. It has shaped who he is today.
“I figured out that was the best way to win with less superior talent,” Haskins said. “I want guys who will play hard. If they do that, then you can accomplish great things.”
Haskins reminded the public of that following the team’s win over Keady’s Boilermakers Jan. 25 at Williams Arena.
“We’re not the greatest five in the country, we know that,” he said. “We don’t have any super-duper players like high school All-Americans. We have a bunch of guys that work very, very hard, and they work with each other. We don’t put any emphasis on one guy. This is a team sport.”
He said he is overprotective of his players from the media and fans. He wants them to be student-athletes and not put onto pedestals. Still, Haskins acknowledges that they are different than the normal student.
He’ll shoulder criticism as long as he believes he’s doing the right thing.
“All I try to do is be honest and fair,” Haskins said. “I don’t know what people think about me. I think they care about me. But I don’t have time to worry about that.”