By Murry Nelson, Guest Contributor
It was January 25, 1972, and Ohio State, the defending Big Ten champion and favorite to repeat was to play Minnesota in an early season match-up that some saw as a turning point for the remainder of the Big Ten season. It was, but not for the reasons that most had anticipated.
Before detailing the game and its outcome, there is a need to provide some background to the game and the conference for 1971-72. The prior season, the Buckeyes, led by All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year, Jim Cleamons, had gone 13-1 in Big Ten play and won the title by a game over Michigan. Minnesota had gone 5-9 and were no factor in the title hunt. Ohio State had lost in the Mideast Regional finals to Western Kentucky, 81-78, but returned Alan Hornyak and Luke Witte, 1971 first and second team All Big Ten, respectively. The Buckeyes were picked as high as No. 3 nationally by some pre-season media. In their early season, pre-conference games the Buckeyes had lost just once, to a very good Ohio University squad.
Minnesota had undergone a number of significant changes since the previous season, not the least of which was the replacement of their coach, George Hanson, who had resigned after just one season and been replaced by Bill Musselman from Division III Ashland College. The Gophers had expanded their junior college “pipeline”, adding Clyde Turner and Ron Behagan, two impressive starters to go with Corky Taylor, Bob Nix, Keith Young and sixth man Dave Winfield (yes, THAT Dave Winfield).
The first day of the Big Ten season brought few surprises as Illinois topped Northwestern, 67-63; Ohio State defeated Purdue, 78-70; Michigan edged Michigan State, 83-75; Wisconsin topped Iowa, 81-80; and Minnesota slowed down Indiana, 52-50, in the Barn, before 19,121, a total that would never be reached again because fans were sitting in the aisles, arousing the ire of the fire marshal. For OSU, Hornyak had 28, picking up where he left off the prior season. In Ann Arbor, Wilmore had 21 and was helped greatly by Ernie Johnson with 24. In Minneapolis, junior college transfers, Clyde Turner and Ron Behagan, had 14 each, to lead the Gophers.
By the end of January, there were just two teams unbeaten in conference play, Ohio State and Minnesota with #6 and #16 rankings in the country, respectively, making the clash in Minneapolis a real key to the season of both teams. Under new coach Bill Musselman, the Gophers had been winning and drawing great crowds. Musselman had started a type of Globetrotter warm-up at Ashland College with his players dribbling and handling the ball in entertaining manners, to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown”. The fans went a bit wild and it carried over into their cheering in the game. Musselman adapted the same routine at Minnesota, even bringing his manager with him to Minnesota on a scholarship, to lead the warm-up, juggling four balls and doing various dribbling routines. The Minnesota crowds loved it, even if the other team did not. The Big Ten opener had drawn 19,121, but the fire marshal, as noted earlier, would not allow that to occur again. The seating capacity of 17,800 would be strictly enforced. The game had been a sell-out for a couple weeks. Amazingly, the game was on the same night as the National Hockey League’s All-Star game, which was being played in the Minnesota North Stars’ Met Center Arena, not far away in Bloomington.[i]
The game was rugged and deliberate. The first half ended with a foul by Witte in which he hit a Minnesota player (Bob Nix) in the head on a drive. That seemed innocuous enough until the events that occurred later. With 36 seconds left in the game, and OSU leading 50-44, Witte was fouled hard by Turner on a put-back and went down. Corky Taylor leaned down, apparently to help him up, but instead, kneed him hard to the groin. Taylor said afterward that Witte had spat on him, (but later changed that allegation, and, days later, went back to it). Then, the tension exploded into malevolent action as players came off both benches, but it was the Minnesota players that seemed intent on real mayhem. While Witte writhed on the floor, Ron Behagan, who had fouled out with 13:34 to go in the game, ran to Witte and stomped on his head. Fans came out of the stands to join in the melee. When order was restored, Taylor was hit with an automatic ejection for a “flagrant personal foul”. That action was moot, since the Commissioner of the Big Ten, Wayne Duke, was in the audience and, after consulting with the referees, declared the contest over, with Ohio State the 50-44 winner. Wardell Jackson had led the Bucks with 16 and Witte had 14, while Turner was the leading Gopher with 13. Three OSU players were taken to the hospital-Witte, Mark Minor and Mark Wager.[ii]
The ramifications from the fight would take center stage in the Big Ten basketball race, pushing the actual games to a lesser location. The next day, it was announced that the Big Ten Commissioner, Duke, would begin a probe in coordination with the Universities of Minnesota and Ohio State. Corky Taylor, the instigator of the fight, was quoted as saying, “as I tried to pick Witte up, he spat on me” and he, then, reacted with a knee to Witte’s groin. Max Nichols, sports editor of the Minneapolis Star, who was at the game, said that there was no excuse for the action. Dave Merchant, standing right behind Witte, said that the spitting story was just that, a story. He was frightened when the fans stormed out of the stands to escalate the fight, because, with the raised floor in “the Barn”, there was nowhere to run. He ran to a corner of the court and saw Wager and Minor beaten by Dave Winfield as fans held the OSU players.[iii] The game was rough, but not unusual, and the allegation of spitting (later withdrawn) certainly was not enough to warrant such a reaction. Nichols totally supported the suspensions, but only regretted that Winfield was also not punished, since he was pounding Mark Minor directly in front of Nichols, but it was, apparently, not caught on any films from the game.[iv] Nichols was not the only one to notice Winfield’s actions, as it had been mentioned by Minneapolis Star reporter, Dick Gordon, in his account of the game, saying, “Dave Winfield singled out Minor and got in some real punches”.[v]
Coach Fred Taylor thought that the game atmosphere and resultant frenzy that brought fans out of the stands to join in the melee and battering of Buckeyes, was a result, at least indirectly, of the Minnesota warm ups that incited the fans. Taylor was quoted as saying that he was going to ask Commissioner Duke “to order the Gophers to cease their pregame warmups”.[vi] He also said that he did not find the suspensions to Taylor and Behagen “tough enough”. Johnny Orr, Michigan coach, thought that Musselman should be punished, too.[vii]
Five days after the melee, Ohio State, playing without Witte or Wager, who were both out with concussions, faced Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines won, 88-78, with Henry Wilmore scoring 26 and Johnson, 19. Hornyak had 24 and Greg Jackson, 14, for OSU. In what seemed to be an effort to call every possible foul, the referees assessed OSU with 32 fouls and Michigan with 18. Five Buckeyes fouled out and three Wolverines. OSU had one more bucket, 29, to Michigan’s 28, but the home team was 32-50 from the line, compared to 20-25 by the Buckeyes. That same evening the Gophers played in Iowa City in a much more deliberate game (the Minneapolis Star referred to the Gophers as “gracious” in the contest)[viii], which saw the Gophers triumph, 61-50, to move into a tie for the Big Ten lead.[ix]
One week after the events in Minneapolis, Witte was cleared to play against Iowa. Roy Damer of the Chicago Tribune, reporting this, described those past events as “revolting beatings carried out by Gopher players and fans” and “an exhibition of crazed animal behavior”. The game was close, but Witte seemed to be relatively unaffected by the concussion as he scored 17 points and took 14 rebounds in the 82-77 Ohio State victory. Despite the appearance, Dave Merchant said that Witte, who had been getting better and better, never really recovered and did not show that level of improvement ever again.[x] Alan Hornyak scored 37 points to lead all scorers, while Rick Williams (24) and Kevin Kunnert (23) led Iowa. This was the only Big Ten game that night, but there was plenty of other news as the Big Ten athletic directors approved “red-shirting” beginning the next season, something most other major schools and conferences had already approved. In addition, the athletic directors also ratified Commissioner Duke’s and the University of Minnesota’s suspensions of Taylor and Behagan for the rest of the season (and they would not be allowed to practice with the team), although, as it turned out, Minnesota may only have supported a three-game suspension for the two.[xi]
The criticism for creating the atmosphere that led to the Minnesota attacks on OSU on January 25th was pointed, by many, at Coach Bill Musselman. Reporters went to Ashland College for comments on his coaching patterns there and got quite an earful. The feelings toward Musselman were really a dichotomized-love/hate situation. These comments started with his semi-Globetrotters pre-game routine and continued through the actions and attitudes of his players during games. There were two prior fight incidents, both the fault of the Ashland players, during Musselman’s tenure and many quoted Musselman, himself, who preached the mantra, “defeat is worse than death”. Interestingly, one of Musselman’s critics and sharpest observers, was Luke Witte’s father, who was a Professor of Philosophy at Ashland.[xii]
Taylor and Behagan retained attorneys, who sued in U.S. District Court to end the players’s suspension. These proceedings would continue to hang over the Big 10 season, especially since the Gophers kept winning and Minnesota might represent the Big 10 in the NCAA tourney. Ohio State, meanwhile, had Witte and Wager back, but lost Gerhard to mononucleosis. Both won on February 12th and they were tied for first, with Michigan close behind. No other team in the league was over .500.[xiii]
The restraining order requested by the attorney for Behagan and Taylor was denied, but a hearing was set for later in the month on a requested injunction against the Big Ten. On February 19th, the Illini defeated Ohio State in the regionally televised Big Ten Game of the Week, 64-62, in Champaign. Weatherspoon had 20 and Jim Krelle, 14, for Illinois, while Hornyak had 23 and Gerhart (apparently recovered from what had to be a misdiagnosis of mono), 13. The game was lost at the foul line, where the Bucks were just 12-28 and the Illini, 34-46. Four Bucks and one Illini fouled out. Minnesota snatched first place with a 76-73 victory over Wisconsin. Clyde Turner had 29 to lead all scorers, while Bob Frasor and Gary Anderson each had 14 for Wisconsin.[xiv] The latest AP poll had no changes at the top, but OSU had fallen to #15 and both Minnesota and Michigan were now listed as “others receiving votes”.
The judicial hearing for Behagan and Taylor was set for February 24th. The U.S. District Judge had ruled that the two should get a hearing before the Big Ten Athletic Directors in order to satisfy the issue of due process. The judge also noted that the Big Ten had no constitution and was governed by “precedents and formal resolutions”.
The Big Ten Athletic Directors, by an 8-0 vote (Minnesota and OSU abstaining), upheld the suspensions and the effect on Minnesota was immediate, as the Gophers lost to Michigan, 64-52 in Ann Arbor. Wilmore had 20 to lead the Wolverines and Brady tossed in 17. Winfield and Turner each had 15 for Minnesota. The victory moved Michigan into the Big Ten lead.
On March 4th, Minnesota claimed the Big Ten lead after defeating Illinois, 91-62. 31 Illinois turnovers made the Gopher win that much easier. The game drew 14,666 and helped Minnesota set an all-time home attendance record with 157,209 for the year. Ohio State, playing in Indiana, before 16,492, lost, 65-57, despite a game-high 25 by Hornyak. Downing (21) and Wright (19) led the Hoosiers, as usual. Michigan State hurt Michigan’s chances with a 96-92 win in East Lansing. Mike Robinson was unstoppable, with 37 points for the Spartans. Wilmore (22) and Lockard (21) led Michigan’s scoring. The Big Ten standings had Minnesota at 10-3, Ohio State, 9-4, Michigan 8-4 and Indiana, 7-5. The AP poll continued to have undefeated UCLA at #1, with Penn, UNC, Louisville and Long Beach State following. Minnesota was #16 (16-6) and Indiana #20 (15-7).[xv]
The race ended three days later when Minnesota won at Purdue, 49-48. Again playing just five players, the Gophers were led by Turner and Brewer, each with 12. Ford had 24 for Purdue. Indiana and Ohio State kept pace, but it was too late for them; Indiana won over Northwestern, 72-67 and Ohio State beat Michigan State, 92-73, despite Mike Robinson’s 30 points for the Spartans.[xvi]
The next day, the Faculty Athletic Representatives also voted 8-0 to uphold the suspensions of Behagan and Taylor, meaning that the two would not be eligible for the NCAA tournament. In reporting this, Roy Damer of the Tribune, noted that Ohio State was “not the same team after January 25, when they led the league with a 4-0 record.” Dave Merchant echoed that saying that both Witte and Coach Taylor spent too much time feeling sorry about what had happened.”[xvii] In that same meeting, the athletic reps also gave final approval to freshmen competition in varsity football and basketball. It would be a new day for Big Ten football and basketball starting in the Fall of 1972.[xviii]
The NIT came calling at that point and Indiana answered the call, while Ohio State did not. According to Ohio State athletic administrators, “the boys feel now that they want to turn to the exams and rest”. The “boys” didn’t see it quite that way. Merchant said that there was a real split between those who had made Spring Break plans or were just ready to end the season and those who wanted to go to Madison Square Garden and play. The former faction won out and had been supported by Coach Taylor, who had really changed after the melee in Minnesota and looked back a lot, rather than forward, according to Merchant.[xix]
The NCAA tourney started on March 11 and, in the Mideast, Marquette defeated Ohio University, 73-49, and would meet Kentucky in Dayton. Minnesota was to meet Florida State, a winner over Eastern Kentucky, 83-81. But, then, Marquette was ruled ineligible because Bob Lackey would not sign a statement regarding a lack of an agent or having signed a pro contract; this was done on advice of Coach Al McGuire. The Warriors had already lost First Team All-American Jim Chones, who had signed a contract with an agent with five games to go in the season and was immediately ineligible. The NCAA’s president, Earl Ramer, the faculty representative of the University of Tennessee, stated that “The NCAA intends to let the American people know that we stand for honesty and integrity”.[xx] If Marquette were to be declared ineligible, then Ohio University would take their place in the next round of the tournament, but the next day, Marquette was re-instated when Lackey signed the required document. The crisis was over and basketball, not legal issues, would take center stage, at least for a while.[xxi]
On March 16, both Marquette and Minnesota lost, Marquette to Kentucky, 85-69, and Minnesota to Florida State, 70-56, before 13,458, in Dayton. The two teams played, two nights later, for third place in the Mideast Regional and Minnesota won 77-72 behind 25 by Turner, 18 by Young and 22 rebounds by Brewer. The Gophers shot 47% from the floor to 36% by Marquette. Both teams had lost key players during the year and what might have been had to be in the minds of all concerned.[xxii]
Witte never was the same, as Merchant said. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1973 and played for part of three seasons, averaging 3.2 points per game before retiring as a player. He operated a sporting goods store for five years before becoming a minister. Ron Behagan was drafted by the Kansas City-Omaha Royals in 1973 and played seven years in the NBA, averaging 10.2 points per game. In 2012, he was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay restitution for theft from a 68-year-old Alzheimer’s sufferer. Corky Taylor worked for the city of Minneapolis; became a youth coach; reconciled with Witte, who became a friend, and died in 2012 of lung cancer. Bill Musselman coached the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, among 13 coaching positions that he held. He died at age 59 in 2000 from heart and kidney failure, due to kidney disease. But the fight lives on. It can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM3HlE9yPPs, among other places on the web.
Murry Nelson is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of basketball, and is the author of The National Basketball League: A History, 1935–1949 (2009) and Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League (2013). He recently edited a multiple-volume encyclopedia on the history of American sport, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas (2013). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Roy Damer, “Minnesota Faces Ohio State Tonight”, Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1972, Pt.3, p.1.
[ii] “Fight Stops Buckeye-Gopher Game”, Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1972, Pt.3, p.1.
[iii] Merchant interview.
[iv] Max Nichols, “Max Nichols” column, Minneapolis Star, January 29, 1972, p.5D.
[v] Dick Gordon, “Big Ten May Slap Gophers for Brawl”, Minneapolis Star, January 26, 1972, p.1D.
[vi] “Duke Probes Gopher-OSU Fracas”, Chicago Tribune, January 27, 1972, pt.3, p.1.
[vii] “Buckeye Taylor Seeks More Gopher Penalties”, Minneapolis Star, January 31, 1972, p.9B.
[viii] Dan Stoneking, “Gracious Gophers rip polite Iowa”, Minneapolis Star, January 31, 1972, p.9B.
[ix] “Michigan Topples Ohio State, 88-78”, Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1972, Pt.2,p.1. “Gophers Triumph, Tie for Big Ten Lead”, Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1972, Pt.2, p.2. “Spartans Keep Hoosiers on Big Ten Skids, 83-73” Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1972, Pt.2, p.4.
[x] Merchant interview.
[xi] Jim Byrne, “Big Ten Works on Differences in NCAA Rules”, Minneapolis Star, January 31, 1972, P.11B.
[xii]Don Pierson, “Musselman Stirs Fans in Ashland”, Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1972, Pt.3, p.2. Don Pierson, “ ‘Defeat Worse than Death’-Musselman”, Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1972, Pt.2, p.1.
[xiii] “Gopher Duo Sue to End Suspensions”, Chicago Tribune, February 12, 1972, Pt.2, p.1. Roy Damer, “Gophers Rip N.U.; Tie for First”. Chicago Tribune, February 13, 1972, Pt.2, p.1. “Ohio State Wins”, “Michigan Blisters Illinois”, Chicago Tribune, February 13, Pt.2, p.2.
[xiv] “Illini Nip Buckeyes at Line”, “Gophers Win; In 1st”, Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1972, Pt.3, p.1.
[xv] “Gophers Romp, Lead Big Ten”, Chicago Tribune, March 5, 1972, Pt.3, p.1.
[xvi] Neil MIlbert, “Hoosiers ‘Garbage’ Buries N.U.”, “Gophers Win Big 10 Title”, “Ohio State Beats Michigan State, 92-73”, Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1972, Pt.3, p.1.
[xvii] Merchant interview.
[xviii] Roy Damer, “Faculty Reps Uphold Ban on Gophers”, Chicago Tribune, March 9, 1972, Pt.3, p.2.
[xix] Merchant interview.
[xx] “Marquette Ruled Ineligible by NCAA”, Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1972, Pt.3, p.1.
[xxi] “Marquette Reinstated to NCAA Meet”, Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1972, Pt.3, p.1.
[xxii] “Warriors, Gophers Bow in NCAA”, Chicago Tribune, March 17, 1972, Pt.3, p.1. Box score, Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1972, Pt.3, p.5.