by Bruce Marshall,Goldsheet.com Editor

Events in last Saturday's Okalhoma State-Texas Tech game thankfully did not esacalte the level of the Ohio State-Minnesota fiasco from 1972, but it came dangerously, and needlessly, close.

As mentioned in our feature story in the new edition of TGS Basketball, we are re-posting a story we originally ran in December, 2011, when we revisited the scary events of January, 1972...a reminder we believe all college basketball players, coaches, fans, referees, and TV pundits would be wise to heed...

Every once in a while, and as long as no one is seriously hurt, it can be argued that college basketball is inadvertently well-served by the sort of incident that marred last weekend’s Cincinnati-Xavier battle at the Cintas Center.

That’s because, if nothing else, the resultant outrage over these sorts of on-court brawls acts as a deterrent from similar melees erupting across the country.

What hoops fans must understand, however, is that on rare occasions these sorts of unwanted developments are going to occur, a byproduct of competition fueled by extraneous factors. The key is to keep a close watch on those sorts of dynamics to make sure they don’t escalate into something far worse.

We’ve seen what can happen when situations get out of control on a basketball court. And thank goodness last Saturday’s fracas at the Cintas Center didn’t spill into the crowd, and no spectators got involved in the fisticuffs. But all concerned parties should always be on the lookout for warning signs that could trigger the sort of ugliness that reared its head last weekend, and the type we’ve seen too often throughout the years.

Although most hoops fans will likely immediately equate on-court brawls to the NBA version seven years ago at Auburn Hills featuring several Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, and a handful of fans, the worst such melees over the course of our fifty-five seasons publishing THE GOLD SHEET have come on the college level.

Cincinnati proper would not seem to be a place for such a flashpoint to occur. Indeed, we’ve always considered the Queen City and its surrounding locales that encompass Northern Kentucky and Southeastern Indiana as perhaps our favorite metro area. We’ve spent plenty of time in Cincy/Northern Kentucky in recent years, much of it gathering info for book projects that are still in the works. We have also always enjoyed Cincy sports gatherings, which are, for the most part, uncommonly pleasant, a reflection of the community at large. Cincinnati Reds games in particular are a treat; while St. Louis seems to garner more attention for its devoted and courteous fan base, Cincinnati presents quite a fan-friendly atmosphere, too, especially for Reds games. We can’t say we’ve enjoyed the baseball experience any more than we have at Great American Ballpark. And we have certainly never sensed the sort of boorishness and arrogance from Cincy fans that we routinely witnessed over the years in places like New York and Los Angeles, either.

We also suspect none of the Kardashians are likely to show up at a Reds game and root on Johnny Queto or Bronson Arroyo, either (by us, another point for Cincinnati over L.A).

But the Cincy-Xavier feud seems to expose some raw nerves in the Queen City. Strangely, this rather straight-laced community almost revels in the animosity between the two schools located less than ten miles apart within the city limits. Over the course of our book research in recent years, we have had occasion to chat with the one man who has seen the Cincy-Xavier rivalry from a unique perspective on both sides, coach Tay Baker, an assistant on Ed Jucker’s NCAA title teams in the early ‘60s who succeeded “Juck” as the Bearcat head coach in 1965. Later in his career, Baker took the same job across town at Xavier, and told us two summers ago that more than a few Bearcat supporters still never forgave him for the move.

Within that backdrop lie the seeds for the sort of incident that erupted last Saturday at the end of the Bearcats-Musketeers game. Although the tension had been building to new levels in the rivalry since Bob Huggins began to recruit a more-hostile, urban element to the Cincinnati side two decades ago.

Xavier has not been an innocent bystander in the antagonism, either; indeed, the “X” has been all too welcoming to the sort of punk hoopster element that hardly seems consistent with the teachings of a Jesuit institution. (Xavier, by the way, would hardly be the first faith-based school to be guilty of such transgressions regarding its sports team). Especially Musketeer G Tu Holloway, one of the instigators (mostly with his mouth) in last weekend’s brawl, who hardly distinguished himself in a rather unapologetic postgame interview. “We’re grown men out there,” said Holloway. “We’ve got a whole bunch of gangsters in that locker room. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court.”

Jesuits and gangsters, eh? Quite a combination, we’d say.

The part of the brawl that disturbed us the most, however, involved a few moments that recalled the all-time ugly college hoops melee almost forty years ago between Ohio State and Minnesota. The eerie similarities came when unsuspecting Xavier center Kenny Frease was dropped by a sucker punch from Cincy’s Yancy Gates, with Frease then stomped upon by another Bearcat, Cheikj Mbodj, when prone on the floor. Frease left the court looking like Jerry Quarry after his first bout with Muhammad Ali, with an ugly bloody gash around his left eye.

The danger of situations like Cincy-Xavier is that they can quickly escalate into something much worse, like what we saw in Minneapolis in January of 1972.

The atmosphere was heated that night at Williams Arena (“The Barn” was even considered a relic forty years ago), with the crowd whipped into a frenzy for a Big Ten showdown between the Gophers and Buckeyes. First-year Minnesota coach Bill Musselman had loaded his roster with juco transfers to create the most-intimidating (in a physical sense) team of the early ’70s. The Gophers were urban and hip and brash and played with a collective chip on their shoulders. Whereas the Buckeyes were more of the old-fashioned, button-down variety college hoops team. Ironically, Fred Taylor’s OSU side that season included only a pair of African-American players, Wardell Jackson and Benny Allison, although the Buckeyes had long fielded integrated teams.

It has been said that racial tensions might have had something to do with the on-court explosion that night which occurred with 36 seconds to play and OSU ahead by a 50-44 count. After being involved in a minor incident with Minnesota’s Bobby Nix on the way to the locker rooms at halftime, Buckeye C Luke Witte was fouled viciously on a lay-up try by balding Gopher PF Clyde Turner (whom we always believed was one of the oldest-looking college players of the era, bearing a remarkable resemblance to The Spinners’ lead singer Philippe Wynn), while Turner’s teammate Corky Taylor participated in the further butchering of Witte by belting the big Buckeye on the ear with a roundhouse right just after Luke was clocked by Turner. Crumpled to the floor, Witte was slow to get up when Taylor offered what seemed to be a sporting gesture to help him to his feet. Only Taylor, in a move that would have been heartily endorsed by Freddie Blassie or Rowdy Roddy Piper, instead kneed the prone Witte in the groin.

Soon fists were flying everywhere and the animals in the Williams Arena crowd joined in the melee. Witte, badly hurt and writhing in pain on the floor, was subsequently stomped by Gopher Ron Behagen, who rushed from Minnesota bench to mete out his own punishment on the Ohio State center. After several stomps to Witte’s head, Behagen was pulled off by Buckeye coach Fred Taylor, who might have saved Witte from grievous injury, although Behagen was indignant. “Let me go, man, let me go!,” yelled Behagen to the Buckeye coach, himself a pretty rough character who was not about to watch his star center get beaten to death.

Meanwhile, the melee had extended to other parts of the court, where Minnesota fans had joined the fray. Coming to the aid of stricken teammate Witte, Buckeye Dave Merchant was pummeled by another Gopher, Jim Brewer. The balding Turner also got in his licks. Toward midcourt, Ohio State sub Mark Wagar was being attacked by various Gopher players and fans. One of the Gophers was none other than forward Dave Winfield (yes, that Dave Winfield), who landed four or five blows to the head and face of the prone Wagar. While the dazed Wagar was trying to escape, he was belted by several more Gopher fans, who by this time were all over the court.

With almost no security personnel on hand, it was up to a couple of coaches and administrators and a few good-doers from the crown to try to restore order. The final 36 seconds of the game were never played, with OSU declared a 50-44 winner. Carried by teammates from the floor, Witte was booed by the Minnesota crowd, which threw objects at him as he was helped from the court. Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke subsequently suspended Behagen and Taylor for the remainder of the season, though Brewer and Winfield, their actions not caught by cameras, escaped similar punishment.

Indeed, Winfield’s active participation in the brawl has gone mostly unnoticed since by the majority of media personnel; when once bringing up the fact on a sports talk show, former L.A. sports radio personality Joe McDonnell was indignant that Big Dave was never involved in the fracas. We wonder what sort of direction Winfield’s eventual Hall of Fame baseball career would have taken had he been as closely linked with Corky Taylor and Ron Behagen to the brawl.

This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill brawl in 1972 at Minneapolis; it was a public mugging instead.

Three Buckeyes, including the badly-injured Witte, who spent the night in intensive care, went to the hospital for their injuries. Witte, who needed 29 stitches to close facial cuts while also suffering a scratched cornea, was never quite the same player afterward. The Buckeyes were also not the same team thereafter in the 1971-72 season, fading out of contention in the Big Ten while Musselman’s deep and intimidating Minnesota squad eventually gained its bearings and won the conference, advancing to the Big Dance where it was eliminated by eventual NCAA finalist Florida State.

As for Witte, considered one of the top big men in the country at the time, his career was never the same thereafter, although he did eventually play for a brief time in the NBA with the early versions of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Parallels between the Cincy-Xavier and Ohio State-Minnesota melees are not completely off the mark, though last Saturday’s fracas at Cintas Center, minus (thankfully) any crowd involvement, did not meet the mayhem threshold that Buckeyes-Gophers passed in 1972. Wayne Duke’s season-long suspensions of Taylor and Behagen, however, were not replicated by the administrations of either Cincy or Xavier, which handed out bans no longer than six games to any of the brawl participants. The actions of Bearcat fighters Gates, who at least displayed sincere contrition afterward, and Mbodj could have easily warranted Ron Behagen or Corky Taylor-like punishment. We thought the suspensions on both sides were actually rather light for the gravity of the situation last week at Cintas Center.

Boys, it can be said, will always be boys, but it’s the atmospheres surrounding athletic events that can often contribute more to the sense of imminent hostility, where one flashpoint can trigger an eruption. At least credit the coaches involved in last week’s fracas, Cincy’s Mick Cronin and Xavier’s Chris Mack, for decrying the sorry episode, hardly reminiscent of the late Bill Musselman making no attempt to stop the mugging of Buckeye players forty years ago, nor showing any remorse afterward for his team’s actions.

What must be avoided at all costs are atmospheres that are conducive to violence. It does not take much for an on-court fight to escalate into something much worse; when crowds become involved, complete control is lost, and who knows what might be introduced into brawls at that point. Verbage such as that spouted by Tu Holloway also contributes to such atmospheres, where attacks can be cold and brutal, governed by the law of the jungle.

Cincy-Xavier just missed from escalating into something far worse, along the lines of Ohio State-Minnesota 1972. Let’s just hope we don’t have to recall the names of Corky Taylor, Ron Behagen, and Luke Witte anytime soon in relation to a new basketball brawl.

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