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COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE
FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
March 7, 1999 was a typical Selection Sunday, with the requisite controversy. The Big Ten Conference's record-tying seven NCAA Tournament bids seemed far too many, the Atlantic Coast Conference's three not nearly enough. Virginia and Wake Forest, in particular, felt snubbed. The usual.
The West Regional bracket was the last to be revealed on CBS's selection show. The word finally came at approximately 6:43 EST: No. 7 seeded Minnesota would play No. 10 Gonzaga that Thursday in Seattle. Dan Monson, whose 23-9 team was passed over the previous March, breathed a sigh of relief among a gathering of about 400 in Spokane, Wash., even though his Bulldogs were automatic qualifiers. In Minneapolis, a confident Clem Haskins claimed that he never doubted his 17-10 Gophers' inclusion, though losses in five of their previous seven provided them with no such assurances.
The next two days also provided more of the standard fare.
Though they were the lower seed, the Bulldogs (25-6) were 2 1/2-point favorites before what essentially would be a home crowd at Key Arena. Giddy Gonzaga fans, whose Zags were making only their second tournament appearance, snapped up their allotted 350 tickets, plus another 700 from host University of Washington.
Starved for an angle on Minnesota stars Quincy Lewis and Kevin Clark, the media noted the return of Lewis and Clark to the Far Northwest. One Gopher was baited, in that time-honored tournament-coverage clichι, into acknowledging his ignorance of the opposition: "The only thing I know about Gonzaga," Kevin Nathaniel said, "is John Stockton went there."
Dr. McKinley Boston, who was Minnesota's vice president for student affairs, served on the NCAA Tournament selection committee that paired such an uneventful meeting.
"There was nothing special about it," Boston recalled.
Then came Wednesday. The hell that broke loose that day would intertwine the two programs and change their courses from that day forward.
During midseason, the Gophers' beat writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press received a tip about a former Minnesota employee who had received a letter of disassociation from the program run with an iron fist by Haskins, a beloved figure in the Twin Cities who had led the Gophers to the 1997 Final Four.
George Dohrmann, then 26, made the two-hour drive from Minneapolis to Danbury, Wis., where Jan Gangelhoff, a former office manager for Minnesota's academic counseling unit who now worked at the Hole-in-the-Wall Casino drives that Dohrmann would make several times over the course of that season.
Gradually, Gangelhoff told Dohrmann her story. She had completed more than 400 pieces of coursework for at least 20 players from 1993-98 an academic scandal that the NCAA would say was "among the most serious academic fraud violations to come before it in the past 20 years."
"There were several moments where it was really tenuous," Dohrmann said. "There was a moment late in the game where Jan nearly backed out. She said, 'I don't think I can do this. I don't think I can do this.' And I had to take a couple of days to go see her and kind of reinforce the reasons to do it.
"There were always moments along the way (where the story could have fallen through), and it always hinged on Jan. Where was Jan at that moment?"
Dohrmann and his editors wrestled over the timing of the story, knowing it would invite criticism if it ran near or during the NCAA Tournament. Ultimately, they decided that the story would run when it was ready on the Wednesday before the Gophers' NCAA Tournament game.
Still, Dohrmann didn't fully understand what impact the story would have in the Twin Cities and beyond. The former Los Angeles Times reporter assumed that the story would run in one of the lower corners of the Pioneer Press' sports section, which was where the Times typically ran its investigative pieces. He walked to the pagination desk and looked instead at the huge headline that would run across the very front page of his next day's newspaper.
Back when the Gophers were playing in the 1997 Final Four, the best indicator of Gonzaga's future success sat in the program's cramped coaching offices.
The three assistants Monson, Mark Few and Bill Grier were destined to become Division I head coaches, though only Monson, designated to succeed Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald the following season, was certain of that at the time. A coaching crystal ball would have revealed that only three staffs back then would produce a trio of assistants who still would be D-I head coaches today: UConn, Florida, NC State and tiny, unassuming Gonzaga.
Rarer still: The three lived for many of their coaching years together in Monson's house on Wiscomb Street in north Spokane. When Fitzgerald gave Monson, the son of former Oregon coach Don Monson, permission to recommend a part-time assistant, Monson lured Few, a minister's son and junior-varsity high-school coach, to the low-paying job with the promise of free rent and good times. Later, Few recommended Grier, who grew up a few miles away and roomed with Few at the University of Oregon and was the Felix Unger who cooked and cleaned for the group. Few even lived there for a time with his new wife after getting married in 1994. Grier, who's now the coach at San Diego, remained there a while when Monson became his boss. They were even in each others' weddings, each one married by Few's father.
"Friends were: 'Let me get this straight. You spend all day together, and then you go to the same home?'" Monson recalled. "And we're still close."
The three of them Few, in particular butted heads with Fitzgerald by day and horsed around together by night. They were underpaid, overworked and having the times of their lives. Fitzgerald even seemed to enjoy being challenged late in his career.
"We would fight all the time about recruits, about games," Monson said. "We would fight with Fitz a lot. Mark and Fitz would really go at it. I would go at it with Mark and Fitz. Yet, nobody took it home with them, including Fitz.
"We came in, young and brash and dumb in a lot of ways. Being dumb was a good thing: Why can't we do that?"
The opinionated, outspoken Few was the type, Monson said, who bristled when well-intended Pacific 10 Conference assistants offered the staff tips on players they couldn't recruit. Few's message: Gonzaga wasn't in the market for anyone's leftovers. The attitude carried over to Monson and Grier, and soon the program was recruiting a higher-level player. Few fought hard to land Matt Santangelo, who probably would have wound up there even if Arthur Lee wasn't the first to snatch a first-come offer by powerhouse Stanford. The fact that Gonzaga even was in competition with Stanford for a player was something new.
The new staff greatly upgraded the Gonzaga schedule, as well. One season, the Zags were playing St. Albert's College and in the Bank One-Foothills Dodge Ram Classic in Boise, Idaho. The next, they were beating Clemson, Mississippi State and Tulsa to win the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska, and playing at Michigan State. Those Bulldogs thought they had done enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament despite losing to San Francisco in the first round of the West Coast Conference tournament, and they carried the omission like chips on their shoulders throughout the 1998-99 season.
This time, the Zags left no doubt. In their first nationally televised game of the season, Santangelo scored 37 points as Gonzaga beat Santa Clara in the WCC title game.
The Bulldogs heard "Minnesota" and pictured a team that they could match up with. Monson drew up a triangle-and-two defense designed to ruin Lewis and Clark's return to the Far Northwest. The Zags were confident.
Television cameras were waiting for the Gophers as they got off the bus to walk to their hotel in Seattle.
"Most of us just thought it was normal," former Minnesota forward Dusty Rychart wrote by e-mail from Australia, where he plays professionally, "since it was the NCAA tourney."
Mark Dienhart, the Minnesota athletic director, was waiting for the Gophers, too. He said he was apprised of the story that morning and hopped on a plane to meet with Haskins and Alonzo Newby, an academic counselor implicated in the story. The four players allegedly involved in the scandal starters Clark and Miles Tarver and reserves Antoine Broxsie and Jason Stanford were suspended for the game.
"That was a difficult decision," Dienhart said, "and (it was) difficult to reach an agreement."
Back in the Twin Cities, there was outrage, probably more of it directed at the Pioneer Press than the Gophers. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a man who once wore feather boas to work, fanned that fire, calling the story's timing "despicable." The Pioneer Press received 548 cancellations and lost and $30,000 in advertising.
"It was a shock," Dohrmann said. "It was just a sports story. Why would the governor want to comment on it? And why would it make people so mad they would cancel their subscriptions and to cut their advertising with us?"
In a pre-Blackberry Seattle, many players remained blissfully unaware of the controversy swirling about them until they wandered into a team meeting that night.
"Everything seemed normal," Rychart said, "until we walked into the room and saw guys like Miles Tarver crying along with a few of the other seniors.
"At that moment, there was a feeling of, 'Oh, (crap), how are we going to win without those guys?' But then I realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show that I belonged at this level."
News of the Minnesota suspensions reached the Gonzaga camp during the team's pre-game breakfast. Perhaps a more veteran team would have swallowed the news with an extra helping of over-confidence. It had the opposite effect on the Zags.
"Don't fall for that," Monson told the Zags. "Whoever they put on the floor got a Big Ten scholarship, which none of you guys had."
On the fly, Monson scrapped the triangle-and-two for a box-and-one defense that featured Quentin Hall, a feisty 5-foot-8 native of the Bahamas, on the 6-7 Lewis, who had averaged 24 ppg.
"It was the strangest matchup ever," Gonzaga big man Casey Cavalry said with a chuckle. "We put that little Bahamian bastard on him, talking trash to him: 'NBA, my ass. You're terrible!' He was telling him he wasn't even good enough to make the CBA."
Hall flustered Lewis into making only three of 19 shots from the field and scoring just eight points. Rychart, a seldom-used walk-on freshman left off the Gonzaga scouting report, seized the moment and scored 23 for the Gophers, providing the first clues of what would be an all-Big Ten career. Gonzaga shot out to a 21-point lead, which the Gophers cut to two before losing 75-63.
Cavalry and Monson are convinced that the Zags would have won that day even if Minnesota had its full roster. Naturally, Rychart isn't so sure.
"I guess," Rychart wrote, "we will never really know."
The two programs made headlines of differing kinds over the next two weeks and well into the summer.
Next, Gonzaga upset Stanford, a Final Four team the year before that spent the entire season among the AP poll's top 10. Leading up to the school's first Sweet 16 appearance, Monson rewarded his players by kicking them out of their locker room. They had to dress in the stands as they practiced that week for their game against Florida.
"They were giving each other haircuts in the locker room before the Minnesota game, and they didn't pick up the hair," Monson said, laughing at the memory. "I didn't know any better. I didn't know any different. For us, it was just another week."
It wouldn't just another week, of course. While Bulldogs captured the West Coast's interest by reaching the Sweet 16, they weren't the only darlings of the NCAA Tournament. Miami (Ohio) and Missouri State had advanced, too, and Purdue and Oklahoma were every bit the long shots to make it that far.
Then the Bulldogs upset the Gators, 73-72 in Phoenix, and were within a victory over Connecticut of reaching the Final Four. A nation turned its eyes to the one team among an Elite Eight field that also included Duke, Kentucky, St. John's, Michigan State, Ohio State and Temple that clearly was not like the others.
The Zags came within five points of beating UConn, the eventual national champion.
"I remember coming off the plane after the Connecticut game, and there were thousands of people waiting for us," Monson said. "And it blew me away. All these people were watching? I didn't realize.
"Then I started reading the newspaper, and the whole town was turned upside down. And I didn't realize it."
On the bus ride home from Seattle following Gonzaga's first tournament weekend, university president Fr. Robert Spitzer, fast becoming a basketball fan, turned to Monson and said, "That was fun. Can we do this again next year?"
They could, though not with Monson.
In Minneapolis, Haskins was pressured by late June into accepting a $1.5 million buyout to resign, though he continues to maintain his innocence.
Basketball Times publisher Larry Donald recalling past problems at Minnesota called for the program to voluntarily shut itself down.
Instead, administrators spent nearly a month looking for a replacement whose reputation whose credentials could withstand the aftermath of an academic scandal. Famous flirt Rick Majerus, then the coach at Utah, turned them down. So did Minnesota alum Flip Saunders. There was interest in luring then-Virginia athletic director Terry Holland back into coaching, but he also said no.
"People weren't knocking down our doors for the opportunity," said Dienhart, the former Minnesota A.D. "The NCAA had not announced its sanctions, and my impression was that established coaches were not going to take a risk on what the NCAA might do."
Dienhart and Minnesota officials eventually turned to the 37-year-old Monson, though Dienhart said it was not because of Gonzaga's victory over the Gophers four months before. Dienhart, caught up in the first day of the scandal, had not even attended that game. Of greater influence, Dienhart said, was a call from former Michigan State Jud Heathcote, a Spokane resident and good friend of Monson's father who recommended the Gonzaga coach.
Monson was in Spain as a U.S. assistant at the World University Games when Dienhart began calling him. Monson, who had agreed to a 10-year extension at Gonzaga, resisted, turning Minnesota down twice. But as Minnesota turned up the heat, the idea grew on him. Though WCC programs such as Santa Clara with Steve Nash, Loyola Marymount with Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble and Pepperdine of the Doug Christie era had enjoyed success, it was never lasting. Monson was getting married in two weeks, and the job represented greater financial security. He was intrigued by a job that would force employees to put a greater emphasis on running a clean program than on winning. Minnesota even promised to fly his parents to games from Spokane. And Monson trusted assurances by Yudof, Dienhart and Boston that they would be around to see him through the rough patches that were certain to come.
"It was a no-brainer," Few said of Monson's decision. "The differences (between Gonzaga's program, then and now) were just astronomical in every facet that you could analyze a basketball job."
On July 24, 1999, Dan Monson became the former coach at Gonzaga and the new coach at Minnesota.
Few, the Zags' new coach, not only took Spitzer back to a Sweet 16 the next season, but he took them there the year after that as well over the course of what have been 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Together, they understood, both the university and the basketball program could grow.
And so they did.
"I remember that we were determined not to be one of these flash-in-the-pan, one-hit wonders," Few said, "and to keep growing the program, every aspect of the program."
If so many of players had not remained in or returned to the Spokane area, members of that Elite Eight team would barely recognize their old program.
They now play in the 5-year-old, 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, with coaching offices overhead and spacious locker rooms and training facilities within feet of the court. Richie Frahm, an outstanding guard on the '99 team, likened the old "Kennel" to a fancy high-school gym.
"I'm sitting in my office, looking at the athletes-only weight room," said former Gonzaga big man Mike Nilson, now a strength-and-conditioning coach at the school. "When we were here, there was a weight room that was the size of maybe three classrooms, with old equipment that was available for the whole school. Now we have three strength coaches."
The roster includes players from Chicago, Texas, California and Canada, not just Portland and Washington.
"They're all high-school All-Americans. They all considered UCLA or Arizona," Frahm said. "That wasn't the case when I was in school. We were going to go to the University of Portland or Gonzaga."
After practices, players now eat at a private training table.
"Santangelo and I used to have to run out of the gym after practice because they'd be closing the (cafeteria) at 7 at night," Cavalry said. "No time to shower, because we had to get to the cafeteria before they locked us out. These guys have waiters, pouring their drinks."
The new Bulldogs regularly travel by private jet, something that even no Pac-10 program can claim. They will be on ESPN eight times during this season. Expectations, too, are raised. These players are rock stars.
"We were a grunge band, maybe," Santangelo said. "A garage band."
The Gonzaga brand grew along with the program's success since that Elite Eight run in 1999:
Fundraising rose from $5.8 million in private donations to $16.9 million annually.
The overall budget rose from $73 million to $154 million.
The school's endowment fund rose from $89 million to $154 million.
Student inquiries rose from 20,000 annually to 50,000. Applications rose from 2,000 to 4,000.
The overall student body rose from 4,507 to 7,319.
The average student profile also rose, from a 3.54 gpa and 1,159 SAT to 3.66 and 1,177, a rarity in a time of such growth in enrollment.
Eighteen buildings on campus are new or renovated.
"Our president will tell you there's one reason for all that," Few said. "He's not bashful about it at all."
This is the campus that basketball built.
At Minnesota, Monson found a challenge far greater than he had ever imagined. While waiting for the NCAA sanctions throughout his first season there, he dismissed 7-footer Joel Przybilla for not attending classes. When the NCAA's edict arrived in the fall of 2000, Monson lost his built-in support from Dienhart and Boston, who resigned, as well as four years' probation and the loss of scholarships. He still landed big-time Minnesota prospects Rick Rickert and Kris Humphries, though Rickert left after two seasons and Humphries after one. And while the Gophers reached the NCAA Tournament in Monson's sixth season, attendance slipped as his next team fell to 10th place in the Big Ten the next year. Rumors of his dismissal gained steam in that seventh year and became a reality when, just seven games of his eighth season, he accepted a buyout on Dec. 1, 2006.
"I believed (Dienhart and Boston) were going to be there," Monson said. "That's what I've learned from this. Who you work for is very important. The next A.D. or president could be a great person, but if they didn't hire you, it's different. The rules change."
Monson had accomplished his mission by cleaning up the program, but a declining fan base and a new administration became more interested again in winning games.
"Clearly, Dan Monson was the kind of guy who let Tubby Smith start from ground level, at least, knowing that the program was clean and could rebound," said Dienhart, the former Minnesota A.D. "He was probably put in the most difficult of situations a coach could be put in. Minnesota owes him a debt of gratitude for establishing and re-establishing the honesty and credibility of the program.
"The idea that someone like Tubby Smith, with his credentials, even if things weren't great at Kentucky, would even consider taking the reins of the Minnesota program that was in the condition it was in when Dan Monson took it is ridiculous. He would not have done it."
Smith arrived instead at a time when Minnesota was coming off a 9-27 season but was without a hint of scandal. Smith reportedly called Haskins, who told him he enjoyed his time spent at Minnesota.
Smith's Gophers have spent much of the season in the Top 25 with a roster full of grinders who would have made Kentucky fans howl in protest. Monson holdover Lawrence Westbrook and freshman Ralph Sampson III are supported by Minnesotans such as Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber (famous for game-winning shots) and South Dakota big man Colton Iversen. Smith will add forward Royce White, a top-30 recruit from the Minneapolis area, to an eight-man rotation that doesn't include a single senior.
"Being the only Division I school in the state means you can't take all the good players, all the quality players who come out of this region and this state," Smith said. "We wish we could, but we can't."
Smith not only embraces the sort of mid-level talent that he can get from what once was considered a basketball wasteland, he is proving that he can with them. Fewer coaches from neighboring states now are likely to consider it an area to come poach players. And Smith said he no longer has to fight the image problems that Monson faced back in 1999.
"That's long gone," Smith said. "People are aware of it, but I don't think it's brought up by anyone in recruiting circles. We all have our own little blemishes."
This is probably how everything had to play out for Gonzaga to become a perennial Top 25, NCAA Tournament team.
The Bulldogs had to begin an Elite Eight run against a team that would be in need of a coach. Had they blown that 20-point lead to the Gophers that day, they might never have captured the imagination of Fr. Spitzer, let alone a nation. Minnesota probably wouldn't have called on Monson.
"Damn it," Monson said, laughing.
If Monson had not left that summer for Minnesota, Gonzaga's status quo might not have been challenged. Players might still be running to the cafeteria after practice.
"Gonzaga's a better situation because I left," Monson said. "Their vision changed. They're so smart. They changed their mindset after I left, because they wanted to keep what they had."
And if Monson had not struggled at Minnesota or kept Few apprised of his challenges even that might not have been enough to keep Few from accepting one of the many big-school jobs he could have had.
"No question," Few said. "I had the luxury of seeing that it's not always greener out there. Don't mess with happy."
Monson, who's now the head coach at Long Beach State, said he has no regrets about leaving Gonzaga or taking the Minnesota job, though he wishes he had gone to Washington when he had the chance.
Haskins retreated to his 750-acre ranch in Campbellsville, Ky. Dohrmann won a Pulitzer Prize and now is an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated. Gangelhoff died of cancer in 2005. Dienhart is the senior vice president at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Boston is the athletic director at New Mexico State.
"When you think of it as an anniversary, it's like the anniversary of a death of a member of the family," Dienhart said. "I don't think there's a day since this all happened that I haven't revisited for at least a few seconds the tragedy and pain of the whole thing. There probably won't be a day."
Boston agreed. Boston, who was on a career track to reach his goal of becoming a university president, continues to believe that the Minnesota academic scandal was conducted by a single person who brought down the careers of many.
"I feel the knife in the back today," he said. "It never goes away. And it probably never will."
"Maybe," said Dienhart, "this is the natural way things had to go, but there's tragedy in that, too."
One team wins. The other loses. That's the yin and yang of competition, the outcome affecting each team forever in at least some small way sometimes, for decades to come.
Second place: Steve Wieberg, USA Today
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