Thursday, January 21, 2010

Al Nolen's Academic Troubles A Lot Like 50 Years Ago

It's hard to picture our college sports heroes in a classroom. Everything about the college game is so professional in its appearance, and the players are so tremendously skilled. But, it's true, they've got to go to class and they've got to get passing grades, thereby maintaining their eligibility. It's unfortunate that Gophers guard Al Nolen wasn't able to do that, but he is in excellent company. A good many college athletes have been tripped up by events in that other part of their lives.

Fifty years ago John Kundla became only the Gophers' 6th basketball coach. Like most coaches, he inherited a program with some room for improvement, as Minnesota had won 17 and lost 26 games under out-going coach Ozzie Cowles over the previous 2 seasons. Kundla's hopes for improvement, and those of Gopher fans, rested to a large degree on the shoulders of 6-8 forward Ray Cronk, already locally famous for leading Bemidji High School to the state tournament in 1956, 1957 and 1958. Minnesota improved from 5-9 and 9th place in the Big Ten in 1958-1959 to 8-6 and 3rd place in Kundla's first year, and even better things were forecast for 1960-1961.

Midway through the 1960-1961 season, his junior year, Cronk was declared academically ineligible, and the Gophers were able to win just 20 games while losing 27 this season and the next.

Beginning in 1961, Kundla began to supplement the Gophers' usual supply of Minnesota talent by bringing in some ringers from around the country--Lou Hudson, Archie Clark and Don Yates--and the 1963-1964 Gophers won 10 conference games, the most in a decade. Hopes were sky-high for 1964-1965.

But on December 15, 1964, it was announced that former Duluth Central star Terry Kunze, the Gophers' point guard, was suspended from the team for the 1965 calendar year due to academic problems. (He would, in fact, never return to the team.) Minnesota lost a pair of games to highly-rated Michigan and settled for 2nd place.

Still, expectations for 1965-1966 remained high until Yates was declared academically ineligible just before the first game. Then, All-American Hudson broke his wrist in the 4th game. The Gophers defeated arch-nemesis Michigan but slumped to a 7-7 record in the conference, good only for 5th place.

"The Kundla era," we wrote in Minnesota Hoops, will always be remembered for the entrance of the Gophers into the national recruiting market and for the team's successful integration. Arguably, it was Kundla's leadership that provided for foundation for the Gophers' Big Ten titles of 1972 and 1982. But his own squads never quite put it together. Hudson's injury was a factor....(but) the academic problems of Cronk, Kunze and Yates were perhaps more critical in keeping the Gophers from delivering on their considerable potential."

The Minnesota Historical Society Press asked Kundla to read our manuscript, which he very generously did. The back cover features Kundla's comment that the book presents "some interesting behind-the-scenes stories--all with no punches pulled." I always thought he was talking about our analysis of the impact of those academic problems on his and the U's record.

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