1976-77 players reflect on a season of broken dreams

by Ryan Schuster

Even though the current Gophers basketball team is enjoying one of its best seasons in recent history, Clem Haskins’s crew will always be compared to another Gophers squad that might have been the best in team history.
Minnesota is ranked second in the country in the latest Associated Press Top 25 men’s basketball poll, their highest national ranking since the 1976-77 season. That year a rag-tag group of talented players attained as high as a No. 9 national rating. Minnesota went 24-3 but was shut out of the NCAA tournament because of sanctions against the program. Twenty years later, the Gophers 24-2 start this season conjures up images of the 1976-77 team that could have won it all.
Today they are known as “the team that never was” because all its games were later forfeited when Mychal Thompson and David Winey were ruled ineligible after they sold their complimentary season tickets to fans. The NCAA and Big Ten list that team officially as 0-27 overall and 0-18 in the conference.
The team’s fate had been sealed by another coach a year before their historic season even began. Minnesota was placed on probation from 1975 to 1977 because of violations incurred during former coach Bill Musselman’s tenure. Musselman left the program in shambles in 1975 with 128 NCAA violations still pending. The difficult factors that Gophers squad had to overcome actually inspired the team, instead of frustrating them.
“We knew (that we would not be able to play in the NCAA tournament) going into the season, and it almost became kind of a rallying point for us,” said former coach Jim Dutcher.
In only his second year as coach, Dutcher led an unlikely group of six scholarship players and six walk-ons to the best record in school history, which this year’s team equaled last week with a victory over Illinois. Thompson, Kevin McHale, Phil “Flip” Saunders, Osborne Lockhart and Ray Williams teamed up on that squad to form arguably the most formidable lineup in Gophers history.
“At the time we didn’t know how good we really were,” Saunders said. “Afterward we looked and realized especially after Marquette won that year that if we would have been in the playoffs that year we probably could have won a national title.”
After Marquette coach Al McGuire’s team beat North Carolina in the 1977 NCAA title game, he acknowledged that possibly the best team in the nation was Minnesota, not Marquette. The Gophers beat Marquette 66-59 in Milwaukee early in the season, after having led by as many as 24 points.
The 1976-77 team set school records for most wins, most Big Ten wins, most rebounds in Big Ten games and best free throw percentage.
Thompson, McHale and Williams all went on to be NBA first-round draft picks, and Lockhart and Winey were both sixth-round selections. McHale and Thompson also combined to play on five NBA World Championship teams.
“That was a great ball club,” Musselman said. “The front line could have held their own with anyone in the nation.”
The team also tasted plenty of success after their playing days were over. McHale and Saunders have been reunited in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves. McHale is the team’s vice president of basketball operations and Saunders is the head coach. Thompson is the host of a top-rated sports talk show in Portland. Lockhart went on to play for the Globetrotters and currently coaches high school basketball in Florida.
The team’s interesting blend of characters molded well into a cohesive unit, and with postseason play already out of the question the Gophers just concentrated on having fun and playing to the fans.
“Our big gear-up was just to go out and have a great year,” Saunders said. “It wasn’t where we played for the carrot (NIT tournament) or the NCAA at the end. We played as much as anything for the entertainment and the fun of the game and the competition.”
The Gophers put on a show with great ball handling, pretty passing and often twisting, acrobatic dunks. Fire marshals had to come to games to restore order and limit the amount of people that were let into Williams Arena.
So many people came to games and were not admitted that the Gophers had to open up the old Mariucci Arena to show the game on closed-circuit television for crowds of up 5,000 fans.
The crowds also used to come to the games early to watch the team’s pre-game warm-ups. During warm-ups players did Globetrotter-like ball-handling drills to entertain the fans.
“We had people come for the pre-game warm-up,” Musselman said. “(The fans) were in their seats 45 minutes before game time. They packed the place for the warm-up.”
Williams Arena is again packed this year to watch another top-notch Gophers team, but could this season’s squad match-up with the 1976-77 team?
For Dutcher, who is currently an analyst for Midwest Sports Channel covering the Gophers basketball team, drawing comparisons between this year’s team and the 1976-77 team are inevitable.
“This team has a lot more depth,” Dutcher said. “The ’76-’77 team was a bigger team, though.”
McHale is 6-11, and Thompson and Winey are both 6-10, making the ’76-’77 Gophers a hard team to defend in the paint. Dutcher also considers McHale and Thompson to be better shot-blockers than John Thomas and Courtney James are for this year’s team. Because of the size difference, Dutcher says the current Gophers team is not as talented as the team he coached in 1976-77 but is more comparable in ability to the 1981-82 team that won the Big Ten title.
Minnesota was 15-3 in the conference in 1976-77, losing twice to Michigan and at Purdue by two points. Michigan won the conference that year at 16-2. This year the Gophers are 13-1 in the conference with their only loss coming at Illinois. Minnesota has already wrapped up a share of the Big Ten title.
The 1976-77 Gophers competed before the NCAA added the 3-point line and 45-second clock to the college game. Because the team had a formidable low-post game and also possessed several outstanding outside shooters, they could have scored even more points and been even harder to stop on offense that year had they played with both rules.
“It definitely was talented enough to win the national championship,” Dutcher said, hesitating. “But we’ll never know because we didn’t get a chance to find out.”