2002: Perspective - Gophers travel rough road toward gold

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If you like Cinderella stories, you’re going to love this one. It centers around the University of Minnesota men’s golf team and how it not only has overcome adversity, but has turned what could have been a shattered season into one of hope, courage, pride and determination.

So if you’re into that, keep a close eye on the Golden Gophers, who will be one of 30 teams at the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship next week.

The Gophers’ 2001-02 season could have been one that took a downhill spiral and never recovered. Instead, it is turning out to be among the best in the program’s 81-year history.

The Minnesota saga began last fall with the resignation of coach John Means. He had been at the helm since 1990 and brought the program into the national spotlight, winning 27 college events, playing in nine NCAA tournaments and producing eight All-Americans. The highlight came in 1998, when the Gophers finished seventh at the NCAA finals and produced the individual medalist in James McLean.

Means’ resignation was a delicate situation, and many feel he was forced out by university nit-picking, after some personal airline tickets were charged to the golf program’s account. Means claimed it was a miscommunication between he and the travel agent, and he repaid the school the entire value. It didn’t matter. He was out.

Means’ assistant coach, Brad James, an Australian who played for the Gophers from 1993-96, was named interim head coach.

While Means’ absence upset the players, they bonded together, rallied behind James and produced a fall campaign that included five top-eight finishes, including two seconds. The Gophers were No. 24 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings heading into the spring.

On April 11, however, the university announced it was discontinuing the men’s and women’s golf programs and men’s gymnastics program after this season.

“All of us were in a state of shock,” said James. “When you look at the history and the tradition we have here in golf and the success we’ve had, especially the last 6-8 years, it was unbelievable they would do something like that.

“The hardest part was (not) knowing. We couldn’t get any answers. I’d get up every morning and not know because no one at the top was giving me any information.”

After alumni and the local community rallied support, university officials gave the programs a one-year reprieve, extending life through at least the 2002-03 season.

Still, it left players in a dilemma. Since all had been given releases to seek other programs to complete their eligibility, would they abandon ship or ride out the storm?

“The guys really bonded together,” James said. “They all told me they would return. They became bound and determined to show everyone how important this program is and that they were behind it all the way. They decided not to take a step down, but rather step up and make a point.”

While the players are committed to return, James remains uncertain as to his future. School officials are putting off making a decision.

“I want to be a golf coach, and I’d really like for it to be at Minnesota,” James said. “I was told the new athletic director would make the decision, but I can’t see them naming a new AD until August.”

During those initial weeks of confusion, the Gophers tied for fifth at the Finley Intercollegiate and were fourth at the Spartan Invitational.

Then, once they learned they would return next season, they made their biggest statement of all. With a 3-under-par 285 – the final round’s only sub-par team effort – the Gophers came from behind to capture their first Big Ten Championship since 1972.

“With all the emotions and stress of the past few weeks, for our guys to focus and do something that no Minnesota team has done in 30 years is amazing,” James said after the win. “It’s a tremendous accomplishment for these players.”

And it didn’t stop there. The Gophers were selected to compete in the NCAA postseason for the 11th consecutive year at last week’s West Regional Championship in Albuquerque, N.M.

Again, the Gophers – none of whom are seniors – responded.

Led by sophomore Justin Smith, who shot 6-under 210 and shared medalist honors with Arizona’s Ricky Barnes, Minnesota finished fourth and earned the Gophers their fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA finals.

“Now, going into nationals, we just have to continue to stay focused on the task at hand,” James said. “There is no doubt we are capable of doing very well there.”

And maybe even fit into the NCAA Championship’s glass slipper.

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