Clint Eastwood was daring moviegoers to “go ahead, make my day,” in his film “Dirty Harry.” Don McLean was singing about how the “halftime air was sweet perfume” in his No. 1 hit “American Pie.”
And President Richard Nixon was addressing the nation on TV, revealing secret negotiations to end the Vietnam War — a deal that collapsed as the war dragged on for another three years.
It was Jan. 25, 1972 — 45 years ago this week — and perhaps the nastiest night in Minnesota sports history. One of the state’s great all-time athletes, baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, went unpunished for throwing punches in a brawl-turned-riot that erupted near the end of the Gophers-Ohio State basketball game at Williams Arena.
Luckily for Winfield, nobody had a cellphone camera in 1972.
With 36 seconds left and the Buckeyes leading 50-44, Gopher Clyde Turner was ejected for a flagrant foul that left Ohio State’s 7-foot center, Luke Witte, sprawled on the raised floor. The Gophers’ Corky Taylor offered a hand to help him up, then suddenly kneed Witte in the groin. In 95 seconds of mayhem that followed, Gophers Ron Behagen and Winfield darted off the bench. Behagen, who had fouled out, stomped on Witte’s head. Fans came out of the stands and Winfield joined the chaos.
“Gopher reserve Dave Winfield … got in some real punches,” sportswriter Dick Gordon wrote in the next day’s Minneapolis Star.
Sports Illustrated reported that Winfield “leaped on top of [Ohio State’s Mark] Wagar when he was down and hit him five times with his right fist on the face and head.”
Another writer seated at the stage-like floor, Minneapolis Star columnist Max Nichols, said he was a yard away from Winfield and witnessed him “get in his licks” — slugging an Ohio State player who was on the floor.
The game was promptly called off. Witte was removed on a stretcher, suffering from a concussion and a gashed chin that required stitches at the university hospital. Two of his Buckeyes teammates were also hospitalized.
Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke, who was in the stands, slapped Taylor and Behagen with season-ending suspensions for what Ohio’s governor called “a public mugging.”
He wasn’t the only one outraged. The Chicago Tribune called the debacle “revolting beatings carried out by Gopher players and fans” exhibiting “crazed animal behavior.” Sports Illustrated labeled the outburst “an ugly, cowardly display of violence. …”
“When it was over,” the magazine reported, “when the police and officials had finally restored order, the fans had the audacity to boo Witte as he was helped, bleeding and semiconscious, from the floor.”
All of which brings us back to Winfield. Then 20, the gifted athlete had come of age playing baseball at the Oxford playground in St. Paul — just across the street from Central High School, his alma mater. He was named the Most Valuable Player at the College World Series in 1973. The San Diego Padres drafted him in the first round that year.
He was such a terrific all-around athlete that the Vikings and two professional basketball teams also drafted him. He picked baseball, spending 22 seasons on six teams in the major leagues. Only 16 players in baseball history ever drove in more than Winfield’s 1,833 runs. In 1999, Sports Illustrated ranked Winfield No. 2 behind football legend Bronko Nagurski in a list of the best Minnesota-born athletes.
With today’s Gophers basketball team returning to prominence, and the school’s football player suspensions sparking headlines and coaching changes, the 45th anniversary of the brawl seems like a good time to ask: How did Winfield manage to avoid sanctions and start the next game at Iowa?
Nichols, the courtside columnist, chastised both the Big Ten and the university’s internal committee for letting Winfield off the hook.
“Evidently, Winfield was not on film,” Nichols wrote, “and therefore was not ‘caught.’ ’’ (Thanks to youtube.com, you can watch a 68-second video clip of the melee here.)
Curiously, the university’s Assembly Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics joined the Big Ten in kicking Taylor and Behagen off the team for the season while letting off Winfield scot-free. That 17-member panel included then-athletic director Paul Giel and three students appointed by the university’s then-president, Malcolm Moos.
One of the trio of Moos-appointed student members on the committee? Yep, Winfield. According to the Jan. 29, 1972, Minneapolis Star, Winfield was among the committee members not present when the sanctions were handed down after a secret vote that was not unanimous.
“… Why wasn’t Winfield also suspended?” Sports Illustrated asked in its story headlined, “An Ugly Affair in Minneapolis,” published two weeks later.
The magazine also asked whether the late Bill Musselman, the new Gophers coach in 1972 known for his hyper-intensity, helped ignite the violence. A philosophy professor at Musselman’s previous school, Ashland College in Ohio, had long questioned the coach’s tactics. That professor was none other than Wayne Witte, Luke Witte’s father.
Nine years before his death in 2012, Corky Taylor invited Clyde Turner and Witte — now a pastor — to sit down at Taylor’s home in Plymouth. They watched the video, talked it out and called themselves friends from that day forward.
Not that everyone forgave and forgot. Sports blogs in both Ohio and Minnesota are littered with fans saying they’ve disliked Winfield ever since that day 45 years ago. Those 1972 Gophers, with Winfield, went on to win the Big Ten title that season, but lost early in the NCAA tournament.
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.