In March of 1999, most college basketball fans didn't know Gonzaga. Though the Bulldogs participated in the 1995 NCAA Tournament, won 20 or more games six times in the previous eight seasons and dominated the West Coast Conference for much of the six years prior, Gonzaga was just another mid-major in a time of no social media and practically no national coverage of Pacific Northwest mid-majors.
But in 1999, that all changed. And it can be partially attributed to one of the worst academic scandals in NCAA history at a school nearly 1,400 miles away: Minnesota.
To be clear and preemptively rid the air of any potential anti-Gonzaga tirades, the likes of Dan Fitzgerald, Dan Monson, Mark Few and dozens of players, assistant coaches, administrators, and others built the Gonzaga basketball program into the well-oiled machine it is today. That head coaching trio and others in Spokane deserve 100-percent credit for their work to make the little-known, small, private school in eastern Washington home to one of the best basketball programs in the nation. They didn't need Minnesota or anyone else to help them win 82 percent of their games (498-112), 14 WCC Tournament titles, 16 regular-season titles or 21 NCAA Tournament games over the last two decades.
Nonetheless, Gonzaga's history would be very different if not for the events of March 10, 1999, a date Minnesota basketball fans have been attempting to eradicate from their memory for the last 18 years.
"U Basketball Program Accused of Academic Fraud", read a headline in the Wednesday edition of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. It was supposed to be an uneventful day in Seattle for the Gophers, the No. 7 seed in the West Regional of the 1999 NCAA Tournament who were scheduled to face 10th-seeded Gonzaga the next day. Instead, it was the worst day in program history.
Far worse than the day they lost to Kentucky in the 1997 Final Four, or the day they lost to Georgia Tech by two points in the 1990 Elite Eight. Far worse than when blue-chip recruits Khalid El-Amin, Cole Aldrich or Tyus Jones spurned their hometown Gophers for out-of-state programs. And far worse than any of their losses to hated rivals Iowa and Wisconsin, or their 75-63 loss to Gonzaga on March 11.
George Dohrmann of the Pioneer Press reported that Jan Gangelhoff, an academic counseling office manager, completed more than 400 pieces of coursework for at least 20 men's basketball players between 1993-98.
"These are serious allegations,'' University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof said the night before the story broke. "We've called in legal counsel. I want to look into this promptly. But they are just allegations at this point.''
It didn't take long for the allegations to turn into facts. Gangelhoff herself pulled the plug on the operation, handing over computer files to the Dorhmann that included more than 225 documents for 19 players. She said she struggled with the fraudulent work for years, knowing it was against athletic department, university, and NCAA rules.
"They bring in these high-risk kids, and they know that everything they did in high school was done for them,'' Gangelhoff said. "It's got to stop somewhere."
And that somewhere came March 10 in Seattle, where four players — Kevin Clark, Miles Tarver, Antoine Broxsie and Jason Stanford — were immediately suspended for Thursday's game. Had the university known what they did after conducting an investigation in the coming days and weeks, it's reasonable to assume Minnesota would've forfeited.
The article alleged, among other things, that longtime head coach Clem Haskins paid Gangelhoff to continue "tutoring" players. When reached for comment at their Seattle hotel, Haskins denied the allegations, calling them "news to me".
Turns out it wasn't "news" to him. He actively participated in much of the cheating. Haskins was fired in June and paid $1.5 million for his troubles — in May 2002, a district judge ruled he must repay $815,000 of it because he lied to the NCAA. Among the school's self-imposed penalties was a postseason ban for the 1999-2000 season, reduction of scholarships from 1999-2004 and forfeiture of 90 percent of money earned from the 1994, 1995, and 1997 NCAA Tournaments.
That wasn't enough for the NCAA. Eighteen months after the story broke, they levied additional sanctions, including four years of probation, further scholarship and recruiting visit deductions, vacation of wins and records and show-cause penalties for Haskins, Gangelhoff and Alonzo Newby. Newby was the team's academic counselor who orchestrated much of the fraud.
In July 1999, Minnesota replaced Haskins with the the man who beat him four months earlier, Gonzaga's Dan Monson. Monson rocketed up coaching lists after his team's upset of Minnesota and run to the Elite Eight with wins over Stanford (Second Round) and Florida (Sweet Sixteen).
Despite losing the 38-year-old Monson, a Spokane native who arrived as an assistant at Gonzaga in 1988 before taking over in 1997, the Bulldogs continued their roll. Mark Few, who came to Gonzaga as a graduate assistant one year after Monson, returned to the Sweet Sixteen in both 2000 and 2001. They haven't won fewer than 23 games or missed an NCAA Tournament during his tenure.
The Gophers, meanwhile, haven't come to sniffing their late-1990s success. Monson went 116-101 in his first seven seasons, recording more 12-win seasons (two) than total tourney berths (one). He had one 20-win season and finished better than sixth in the Big Ten just once. He battled the NCAA investigation and sanctions, internal reviews, and public opinion the whole way. Monson resigned seven games into the 2006-07 season.
Then came Tubby Smith. The former national champion brought renewed optimism that the program could finally clear the cloud of scandal that still partially hovered over Williams Arena. Smith was instantly beloved, delivering three 20-win seasons and two tourney berths in his first three years. But in six seasons, he never finished above .500 in the Big Ten and won just one tournament game — the win was a moot point, though, as new athletics director Norwood Teague had already decided to fire Smith, which came a day after losing to Florida in the Second Round of the 2013 tournament.
To recap: In 14 post-scandal seasons, Minnesota basketball was a never legitimate Big Ten contender, won one tourney game, and was about to hire a third coach. Oh, and their facilities were still among the worst of any high-major program.
Richard Pitino arrived in April 2013. Though fans were still pessimistic, basketball fundraising was still down and they were largely an afterthought in the national conversation, the Gophers were far removed from the scandal. Nonetheless, as the losses racked up (26-38 overall and 8-28 in the Big Ten in his second and third seasons combined), the cloud still hovered. Or at least, the perception was that it still hovered.
On March 12, 2017, the Minneapolis sky was snow-filled and cloudy. But oddly it was clear, at least figuratively. Eighteen years after the program was dismantled by pathetic decision-making by Haskins and his staff, Pitino led the Gophers back into the national picture.
They went 24-9 during the regular season and Big Ten Tournament, finishing above .500 (11-7) in the Big Ten for the first time 2004-05 and just the third time since 1996-97, to secure an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, they'll face Middle Tennessee State as the No. 5 seed in the South Region. It's the first time they're seeded higher than No. 8 since 1999.
The optimism, wins, and tourney appearances have returned. Not to mention they're constructing some of the best facilities in the country. Minnesota basketball is finally back.
As for Gonzaga, who knows if they would've won that first round game in the 1999 tournament had the Pioneer Press story been printed two days later. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they would've lost, Monson would've stayed, and the Bulldogs would've gone down a similar path of WCC destruction and annual tourney appearances. But one thing is certain: Gonzaga's run as one of the most stable programs in college basketball history includes a footnote about the first game that launched greatness.
It's a run Minnesota would indubitably love to replicate.