Commentary

Clem Haskins at home away from hoops on his Kentucky farm

Originally Published: August 1, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. -- From Billy Gillispie to the local radio shock jock, everyone in Kentucky has the same reaction when you tell them you're in the state to catch up with Clem Haskins: "Whatever happened to him?"

Clem Haskins
Matthew Williams for ESPN.comFormer Minnesota coach Clem Haskins has no intention of returning to coaching.
The coach who took Minnesota to its only Final Four has managed to do what no one does anymore. Forced out of Minnesota amid a major NCAA scandal involving his players' academic fraud nearly 10 years ago, Haskins walked away, disappearing from the collective consciousness of a game that once defined him.

His is a decision as stunning as the original accusations at Minnesota. Basketball, like every sport, is rife with coaches the NCAA has labeled rule breakers, but the game offers redemption for anyone. Even the most scandalously accused usually resurface on a sideline somewhere.

Former Baylor coach Dave Bliss is working with Athletes in Action; ex-Cal coach Todd Bozeman is the head coach at Morgan State; Jim Harrick has coached an AAU team; Jerry Tarkanian led Fresno State for seven seasons; and Kelvin Sampson, not yet officially sanctioned by the NCAA, is already an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Haskins? His friends can't even convince him to work a local basketball camp. High school friend Barry Smith always gets the same response when he asks Haskins to host a camp: No thanks, Haskins is retired.

Certainly the buyout money Minnesota gave him -- which amounted to around $700,000 after the university sued to regain some of it following the NCAA sanctions -- helped. But it's more than that. Haskins' decision was a calculated one. He isn't back in because he doesn't want to get back in. Teams have called -- he won't disclose which -- at both the college and pro levels. But save a one-year stint as a scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves after he resigned, the closest Haskins has gotten to a basketball game is sitting with buddy Brent Cox in the bleachers at Taylor County High School.

"This is me. This is more me than basketball," Haskins said. "Basketball was a time of my life. This is my roots. Basketball was a little drop of my life. That's why it was so easy to turn the page."

He's not hiding. His phone number is listed; his street is the same one he lived on as a child. But Haskins is living in a place you wouldn't find unless you were looking for it.

The ride along rural Route 210 offers little in the way of sights, save a collection of churches, crops and farms. Campbellsville sits about 90 minutes from everywhere -- 90 minutes from Louisville, 90 minutes from Lexington, 90 minutes from Bowling Green. It is smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, a town of 25,000 where bartering clocks for cattle are still possible and a $3.50 lunch is still on the menu.

What people think happened at Minnesota and what happened, they aren't the same. The problem is, once you're guilty, you're guilty. You can't ever shake it. What's said about you is the truth forever.

--Clem Haskins

Haskins didn't pick this place to lick his wounds after an academic fraud scandal rocked Minnesota and forever stained his reputation. The place picked him long before, nearly 65 years before to be exact, when he was one of 11 children born to Columbus and Lucy Haskins.

He lives on the same farm his parents worked. He's added to the 20 acres his father owned as a sharecropper such that the 3 Point Ranch, voted the finest in Taylor County in 2008, now covers some 600 acres.

It just so happens that Campbellsville, with its old-school values and adoration for the best basketball player ever to come out of the county, also is an ideal place for Haskins to heal and move on.

"I didn't sleep well for about a year or two [after the scandal at Minnesota]," Haskins said. "It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and one minute to knock it to pieces. I came back where people know me. They know what I'm all about and who I am. I'm home."

***
It's impossible to walk into Clem Haskins' basement and not be struck with a heavy dose of irony. One section of the room, big enough to be a room unto itself, is filled with Haskins' sports memorabilia. There are plenty of mementos from his playing days, but it is the coaching tchotchkes that are hard to ignore. There is the ball from his 300th win. A Minnesota Gophers pennant is pinned to a wall. Framed newspaper articles celebrate the team's accomplishments.

It will be 10 years this NCAA tournament since the St. Paul Pioneer Press blew the lid on what the NCAA labeled "among the most serious academic fraud violations to come before it in the past 20 years." A former academic counselor at Minnesota, Jan Gangelhoff, told the newspaper that she had written more than 400 papers and take-home tests for Gophers basketball players between 1993 and 1998, and that Haskins was fully aware it was going on.

The story was published the morning of Minnesota's first-round game against Gonzaga. By 5 p.m., former university president Mark Yudof suspended four players, including two starters. That night, the Gophers lost to the Zags.

Initially unable to find just cause to fire him, the university agreed to give Haskins a $1.5 million buyout of his contract. When the NCAA later charged that Haskins "was knowledgeable about and complicit in the academic fraud," the university sued and won back $815,000 of that money.

A Closer Look

Almost a decade ago, Clem Haskins left Minnesota after a scandal involving academic fraud. With his coaching reputation in tatters, Haskins returned to the anonymity of Campbellsville, Ky., his hometown, to work on the farm where he grew up. He hasn't looked back. Zoom Gallery.
Yudof, now the president of the University of California, was not available for comment, Cal public relations director Brad Hayward said.

Haskins isn't interested in talking directly about what happened at Minnesota. He said he has "turned the page" and is not in the least bitter with the university. In fact, Dick Ames, a friend and a Gophers booster, invited Haskins to a golf outing hosted by current Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith this year. Haskins happily went.

But in roundabout conversations discussing Minnesota, it is clear Haskins still is stung by what he believes were unjust accusations. Haskins said any mistakes he made were because he wanted to help players and that, "I never once asked a young man to do something wrong, to cheat or to protect me. Never. I'm not perfect, but I never did anything that would embarrass or hurt the university, the community or the program. If I did anything wrong, it was because I was trying to help an individual, someone who needed my help."

Many people in Campbellsville wish Haskins had put up more of a fight. But he said that he didn't want to rake the university through more than it already had been through and that he knew he would be merely tilting at windmills.

Aside from a mission to get the Gophers' 1997 Final Four banner rehung in the rafters of Williams Arena (it was taken down after the NCAA sanctions voided the Final Four appearance), the only fight left in Haskins is with the NCAA.

The NCAA gave Haskins a seven-year show-cause penalty, then the harshest penalty ever doled out by the NCAA.

"The problem with the NCAA, you're guilty. That's it," he said. "What they say in the end, when they put out that piece of paper, it doesn't have to be the truth. But they write it up, and that's the public perception. That's it. That's your reputation. You can't defend it or argue against it. That's what hurts so much. There's nothing I can do, nothing anyone can do. When they say you're part of an NCAA investigation, they want to convict you. They aren't into finding out the truth. That doesn't matter.

"What people think happened at Minnesota and what happened, they aren't the same. The problem is, once you're guilty, you're guilty. You can't ever shake it. What's said about you is the truth forever."

Clem Haskins
Tim Boyle/Getty ImagesHaskins admits he "didn't sleep well" for some time after he left Minnesota.
When asked by ESPN.com to respond to Haskins' accusations, the NCAA, through director of public and media relations Erik Christianson, said in a statement: "The committee noted the violations were 'significant, widespread and intentional.' It should be noted … that the university and enforcement staff were in agreement on the findings of violations and facts in the case."

Haskins appealed the seven-year show-cause penalty, but the appeal was denied.

In mid-July, Haskins reflected on what happened at Minnesota, albeit briefly, as his pickup truck rumbled across one of his fields. He had to drive his tractor to another nearby spot on the farm. The conversation and location couldn't have been more at odds with each other.

Here was a man, wearing blue jeans, a khaki shirt and a Cattlemen's Association ball cap, offering blistering criticism of the NCAA. It symbolized the perfect crossroads of who Clem Haskins was and who he is.

Or, as he would say, who he always has been.

***
Driving across the rolling fields of Haskins' farm is like taking a tour of his childhood. Here, at the end of a small, gravel driveway, sits the plot of land where his parents' home once stood. It has since burned down, but Haskins keeps the land cleared and has a small vegetable garden there. Every third weekend in July, the extended family gathers for a reunion on the spot. The "Haskins on the Hill" reunion was the children's idea, a way to preserve the family memories and stories, a wish made all the more poignant after family matriarch, Lucy Haskins, died in 2002.

A short ride down the road is a small two-story house. Haskins is fixing it up for visiting family. It used to be part of the Wayne Farm, a place where Haskins spent much of his boyhood. He helped George Wayne milk cows and fix the porch, and he planted the saplings that became the trees that now tower over the house with Wayne's wife, Bessie.

He vowed as a kid that someday he'd buy Wayne's farm. In 1970, he made good on his promise. He purchased the farm, including all of its cattle, equipment and 50 acres for $50,000.

It was the first piece of property Haskins bought, and he expanded it to the 600 acres that surround his family's original plot on all sides.

It's a quiet, simple life. He and his wife, Yevette, are the only workers on the farm. They tend to the 300 heads of cattle. December to March is no longer the heart of the basketball season. Instead, it is calving season, and early each morning and again at night, Haskins checks his cattle to make sure there's no trouble that would require a call to the local vet.

He drives the tractors to plow the fields and bale the hay. The methods have changed -- as a kid, Haskins worked a mule-driven plow and hand-milked cows -- but this is the same thing Haskins did as a kid, the one thing other than basketball he knows really well.

When Haskins' old high school coach, Billy B. Smith, still a spry 76-year-old, explains why Haskins came back -- "It's in his blood," he said, snatching a handful of dry hay and dirt -- it's a powerful statement, not at all corny.

This is me. This is more me than basketball. Basketball was a time of my life. This is my roots. Basketball was a little drop of my life. That's why it was so easy to turn the page.

--Haskins

"I don't know stocks," Haskins said. "I know land."

Haskins speaks about the land much like Scarlett O'Hara did and has found the same sort of rebirth in the dirt of Kentucky as the Southern belle secured in Georgia.

Coming back here always was the plan. Haskins said he wanted to coach 20 years, in part because it was a goal he set, but in the latter years more so because he wanted to earn a little more money to buy some more land.

He made it to Year 19 before the NCAA scandal, then returned home. Here, the kids he palled around with when he became the first black student to integrate Taylor County High School, the ones who followed his playing career at nearby Western Kentucky, are the men and women he sees today. At the Creek Side Restaurant, he smiles warmly at the waitress, a former classmate, and laughs to the point of crying as he and buddies John Kessler and Barry Smith try to explain the origins of a local character's nickname -- Egg Money.

The county judge executive, Eddie Rogers, is a former high school teammate. The stockyard is run by his high school coach's family. Jimmy Wheeler, the guy who first taught him to play basketball in a barn, still lives here, too.

"He's an ace," Rogers said. "When he came to the high school, he fit in immediately."

People don't ask questions about what happened at Minnesota, at least not of Haskins.

"People here don't give a damn about what the press says," said Brent Cox. He chuckles when asked how long he's known Haskins, unable to remember a time the two weren't friends. "They know Clem."

Haskins, known as Clem the Gem in his playing days, is just another guy who pops into Orville's Restaurant between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. to catch up on the local gossip. He's a guy you see if you're looking to buy a bull or, if you're Jeannette or Sie Parrish, a guy you welcome warmly when he brings a visitor to check out your antique clocks collection.

"People still look up to him. I mean, he was a hero around here," said Richard Williams, one of Haskins' former high school teammates. "But now he's just a regular Joe like the rest of us."

***
The pickup trucks started pulling in a little before 4 in the afternoon. Within a half hour, they were two rows deep, lining an empty piece of field on Haskins' property.

It was time for Taylor County's annual Hay Field Day, an educational program done in conjunction with the University of Kentucky agricultural department.

[+] EnlargeClem Haskins
Elsa Hasch /Getty ImagesHaskins guided Minnesota to its only Final Four in 1997.
Close to 100 farmers showed up on a burning hot mid-July afternoon, then listened intently to tips about how to eradicate weeds from their fields. Later, they took spins on the shiny pieces of equipment local dealers brought in for demonstration. They wore blue jeans and overalls, suspenders and baseball caps. Some brought their children; everyone stayed for the free rib eye dinner.

Haskins moved comfortably among the farmers, slapping backs and telling stories. He talked with them about farming problems and bulls.

Very rarely was the topic of basketball even broached.

Haskins isn't ashamed. It just seems like a lifetime ago.

"It's been 10 years. That's a long time," he said. "Of course I missed it at first. I started playing basketball when I was 11 years old. Anyone who does something that long and then says they don't miss it is lying. You get set in a routine as much as anything. I was used to going to practice, to getting ready for games. That routine is a comfort, and when you don't have it, depression can set in, all those empty hours. But farming filled my void. I have something to do every day, every hour if I want to. This is who I am, and I'm very happy with who I am."

With that, Haskins smiled and turned around. The local John Deere and Massey Ferguson tractor dealers were showing off their latest equipment; the rib eyes were cooking up on the grill.

It was time to get back to the rest of his life.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

ALSO SEE