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Reusse: Haskins, nearing 80, knows what Johnson is going through at U

Clem Haskins knows the feeling of what Ben Johnson has gone through in his first two seasons as the Gophers men's basketball coach.

Haskins inherited a demolished roster when hired in the spring of 1986. He was taking on the double-round robin of a 10-team conference filled with big-name coaches and went 6-30 in the Big Ten in Years 1 and 2.

Johnson was destroyed by the transfer portal in Year 1, and is hoping to build something from the current ruins of Year 2. The record for Johnson in a 14-team Big Ten of balanced mediocrity is 5-30.

"I feel for him,'' Haskins said. "You can tell he's a motivated coach. He coaches hard. He just doesn't have enough players that are ready to win. It takes time.

"When we started, everybody in the Big Ten was better than us. He's in the same situation.''

Haskins was 43 in his first Gophers season and had five seasons as a head coach at Western Kentucky to draw on. Johnson was 40 and a career assistant when made a surprising hire by athletic director Mark Coyle in the spring of 2021.

On Monday, a few hours before the Gophers' latest loss at Illinois, I called Haskins at the farm in Campbellsville, Ky. Clem will turn 80 this summer, and has been dealing with the physical plights of old age.

And his wife and partner, the great Yevette, "She had a real tough time last summer,'' Clem said. But she got on the phone for a couple of minutes and we agreed with Mellencamp, that old age isn't for cowards.

You want to get some zing back in Clem's voice, though, bring up that first bunch of Gophers — the crew that went from dregs of the Big Ten to Kevin Lynch's narrow miss at a long three at the buzzer that would've meant a trip to the Final Four.

There were four freshmen on Haskins' first team in 1986-87: Willie Burton (the prize), Richard Coffey (the paratrooper), tall Jim Shikenjanski and short Connell Lewis. There was also muscular guard Melvin Newbern, losing his freshman year for what were Prop. 48 academic restrictions.

"Shik couldn't pass the ball from here to there; tall, slim … you wondered if he would've ever be able to play in the Big Ten, in big games,'' Haskins said. "And Corny Lewis … he was a backup guard and I spent more time arguing with him than any player ever.

"He'd come in and say, 'I should be starting.' He'd tell me he was better than Melvin, better than Kevin Lynch. He was always tough as nails, Corny, whether playing or arguing.

"And you know what? That regional final against Georgia Tech, when we had foul trouble, Shik was fantastic — at his absolute best in his biggest game — and Corny, he kept us in that game for 10 minutes.''

Clem paused, then said: "You know what the free throws were in that game? Thirty-five for Georgia Tech and 11 for the Gophers. And we lost by two (93-91). That's never going to be right."

One major problem Johnson faces that Clem didn't have in going from the bottom, to a Sweet Sixteen, to a final eight in his first four seasons: the transfer portal.

"I'd hate to be out there in it as a coach,'' Haskins said. "You get your guy as a freshman, he works, you coach, you pump yourself up that you've brought this team together, and a good player just leaves. That would kill me.

"What I put Willie [Burton] through, extra drills early in the morning, and what he did for us as a player, those games when he just carried us …

"If a player like Willie left, I don't know what a coach would do."

Haskins then laughed and said: "Willie is getting a doctorate. You want a success story? Willie Burton is getting a doctorate!''

Clem's first collection wasn't the best of it with Haskins for Gophers fans:

There was the Final Four team of '97, vacated by the most-overrated academic "scandal'' in NCAA history, but with Bobby Jackson and the rest of that hard-nosed crew never to be forgotten.

Yet, if there's anything to sell Johnson's current group of freshmen to stick around in unison — to keep improving as much is possible — it would be to look at where Clem and the earliest Gophers started in November 1986 and where they ended in March 1990.

Richard Coffey was reminded of that again this week. He remembered Haskins bringing back the players for a full practice one night right after a loss to Austin Peay in the Barn, remembered running at 5 a.m., remembered Clem's tough love.

"I would not change one thing, from a win-loss perspective, from my time with the Gophers,'' Coffey said. "I learned more about myself the first two seasons than the last two.

"We needed to go through that fire of losing to become the team that we were in the Superdome. And we needed Clem — we needed that coach who would grab you by the neck and five minutes later he was giving you a hug.''