Rob Oller: Violence erupted 50 years ago when Ohio State played Minnesota in basketball
Ohio State forward Mark Wagar looked up just in time to see Goldy Gopher ball his fist. Or paw. Or whatever you call the Minnesota mascot’s punching mitt.
Ha-ha, just another choreographed stunt between a team mascot and athlete to entertain fans, right? Not quite. This fight was not fake and anything but funny. The surreal was sure real.
“I remember briefly rolling on the floor before being knocked unconscious,” Wagar said. “As I came to and tried to get up, at least one fan and the Gopher cold-cocked me under the jaw. The next thing I remember was I was on the bench after it had all stopped, and somebody gave me a towel to stop the bleeding over my eye. … People could have died that day.”
Players hospitalized, careers ruined: Minnesota attack on Ohio State among worst acts of violence in sports history
Fifty years ago this week, on Jan. 25, 1972, college basketball witnessed an abhorrent act of violence that remains among the worst in sports history. The one-sided melee that broke out during the last minute of Ohio State’s game at Minnesota left ugly marks that have not disappeared. The brutal brawl, which began on the floor and moved into the stands, sent three OSU players to the hospital, damaged several careers and ruined at least one man’s love for coaching.
Five decades later, those involved in the Buckeyes-Gophers brouhaha remember almost everything, except for Wagar and OSU center Luke Witte, who blacked out while getting beaten by Minnesota players, fans and the mascot.
“I remember it in detail. It was the scariest moment I’ve ever experienced in my life,” former OSU guard Gary Repella said of the mayhem inside Williams Arena, where a revved-up crowd of 17,775 were joined by another 10,000 in the adjacent hockey arena watching on closed circuit.
It began with 36 seconds left in a game the Buckeyes led 50-44, when Witte was fouled flagrantly by Minnesota’s Clyde Turner while attempting a layup. Sitting on the court, Witte reached for the hand of Gophers’ 6-foot-9 center Corky Taylor, who offered to help the Ohio State 7-footer to his feet. But as Witte rose Taylor kneed him in the groin, dropping the OSU big man back to the floor. Then all hell broke loose. After a few minutes of terror, officials and coaches agreed to call the game early, but the damage was done.
“Their fans were on the court fighting with us. Coming up behind us. Tackling us. Punching us. I remember six or seven Minnesota players running around the court fighting with people. I was terrified,” said Repella, who was lucky to escape injury.
Injuries on the basketball court
Wagar was not so fortunate. Attacked from behind by Gophers center Dave Winfield, now better known as a baseball hall of famer, the OSU junior sustained a concussion during the chaos that eventually saw him, Witte and OSU forward Mark Minor taken to the hospital by ambulance. Minor was treated for cuts and abrasions and released, but Wagar and Witte spent the night in the intensive care unit. Witte required 29 stitches in his face and suffered a scratched cornea after getting stomped in the head by Minnesota center Ron Behagen, who had fouled out with 13 minutes remaining.
The game was televised, but things happened so fast and in so many different spots, it was hard to capture everything. You can find some of the lowlights on YouTube, but the broadcast failed to show Ohio State guard Gregg Testerman tossed into the stands by Minnesota forward Jim Brewer.
“Brewer grabbed me from behind and threw me,” Testerman said. “I went up into the stands and fans started hitting me and holding me down. One guy kept jacking me in the jaw and a girl was hitting me with a purse. Fortunately, there was a security guard who pulled me out.”
Brewer also got some licks in on OSU guard Dave Merchant, who explained it was impossible to escape because the court at Williams is raised about four feet above floor level.
“You were screwed because there was nowhere to go,” Merchant said.
'Never the same': The impact of the 1972 brawl between Ohio State and Minnesota
Even the exit tunnels were blocked by fans, Repella said, explaining that most of the security force left the building with about 10 minutes remaining to help route traffic from the parking lots.
Watching in horror was Ohio State coach Fred Taylor, who at one point stepped in to pull Minnesota players off his Buckeyes.
“I’ll tell you one thing; all the bushes aren’t out in the field,” Taylor said after the game. “This was a bush performance … a good basketball game spoiled by bush reactions from a team that was beaten.”
The brawl affected Taylor emotionally as much as it impacted his players physically. His record in 13 ½ seasons up to the Minnesota game was 246-95 (.721); after that he went 49-63 (.438) before retiring at age 52 following the 1975-76 season.
“Fred was never the same coach after that,” Repella said. “He thought the Big Ten suspending (Taylor and Behagen for the season) wasn’t enough.”
Taylor wasn’t the only one who changed after that January night.
“Luke was never the same. Fred was never the same. I’m not sure any of us were ever the same,” Wagar said. “It causes you to think about things differently, and the mistakes made there will follow people the rest of their lives.”
Among the biggest mistakes, Minnesota coach Bill Musselman had worked the Gophers and their fans into a frenzy, billing the Ohio State game as the biggest in school history and telling his players that defeating the Buckeyes was essential to putting the basketball program on the map. Musselman encouraged aggressive behavior and a win-at-all-costs mentality, constantly reminding his team that “Losing is worse than death, because you have to live with it.”
Witte discussed Musselman’s all-or-nothing approach with Corky Taylor and Turner when the three met in 2000 in Minneapolis to mend fences. They also talked about the racial tensions of the early 1970s that likely contributed to the brawl — Minnesota’s roster was mostly black; Ohio State’s mostly white — as well as the need to forgive, if not forget.
“There really are things to be learned from every event, and if you don’t walk away having learned something from it, you’re the one lesser for the experience,” Witte said this week.
What Witte learned, and continues to learn, is that something like the Minnesota melee could happen again — and in fact almost did happen during a fight between Kansas and Kansas State players in 2020 — unless we work to understand that hatred has no place in sports.
“Human nature hasn't changed since Cain and Abel. It’s right below the surface,” Witte said. “You have options and you have to make a choice to do good, and sometimes we don’t. We choose to go down a bad path. You have to be intentional. Are you going to be vindictive and angry or patient and loving? As human beings we have to understand that. If not, we’ll never get along.”
Wagar weighed in with a similar message.
“It’s an interesting time to reflect,” he said of the brawl’s 50th anniversary. “Did anybody learn anything?”
We can only hope.