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Kevin Schnepf, Published June 06 2010

Schnepf: Wooden nearly became ‘Wizard of Williams’

Thanks to a good old-fashioned Upper Midwest blizzard in 1948, O.B. Cowles – not John Wooden – was named the men’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota.

Yes, the same John Wooden who ended up coaching UCLA to 10 national championships during a 12-year period could’ve been a Gopher coach. In fact, Wooden wanted to be a Gopher coach but that blizzard prevented U of M athletic officials from making a phone call to offer Wooden the job.

Thinking the Gophers weren’t interested, Wooden took the job at UCLA.

The rest, as they say, is history. And what an historic run it was for John Wooden – who, at the age of 99, died on Friday.

For Gophers fans, where was the Internet or cell phones when they needed it? One click of the keyboard or one tap of the send button and Wooden could’ve become the “Wizard of Williams Arena” instead of the “Wizard of Westwood.”

But in an era when a long-distance call from a rotary-dial phone was the new wave of technology, Wooden accumulated 620 wins from 1948 to 1975 at UCLA. Meanwhile, the Gophers went through five head coaches during that span.

O.B. Cowles from Browns Valley, Minn., was no slouch. He had a 147-93 record with two Big Ten championships in 11 seasons. Wooden built a 215-85 record with three NCAA tournament appearances during that span.

John Kundla, a former Minneapolis Lakers head coach, built a 110-105 record during the next nine years at Minnesota. Wooden, meanwhile, had a 205-51 record with four national championships.

Former University of North Dakota coach Bill Fitch had a 25-23 record in two years at Minnesota. Wooden went 57-3 with two national titles.

When George Hanson lasted one season at Minnesota with an 11-13 record, Wooden won his fifth national title with a 29-1 season.

Then came Bill Musselman, who in four seasons at Minnesota built a 69-32 record and guided the Gophers to their first Big Ten title in 35 years. But that paled in comparison to Wooden’s 114-7 record and three national titles.

Oh, what could’ve been.

Instead of wearing the blue and gold, Walt Hazard, Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Sidney Wicks, Keith Wilkes, Lucius Allen, Mike Warren, Henry Bibby and Bill Walton could’ve been wearing the maroon and gold.

Instead of Bruins fans celebrating four 30-0 seasons in Pauley Pavilion, Gopher fans could’ve been whooping it up in Williams Arena.

Instead of going ga-ga over Musselman’s rejuvenation project from 1971-74, Gophers fans could’ve have been going ga-ga over a record 88-game winning streak.

I know, I know … all of this probably wouldn’t have happened. Not even a wizard like Wooden could’ve produced that kind of magic in Gopherville.

Wooden himself probably discovered that it’s a lot easier to lure star recruits to sunny California than it is to frigid Minnesota. After all, we all know how those lousy blizzards can change the course of history.

Readers can reach Forum sports editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com