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The Blizzard of Westwood

posted Nov 27, 2020, 11:22 AM by Dan Whenesota   [ updated Apr 17, 2021, 7:35 AM ]

April, 1948.  John Wooden, a basketball coach at Indiana Teacher’s College, was a candidate for the head coach position of the University of Minnesota basketball team. He was also a candidate for the same job at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA).  Wooden and his wife Nellie were both from Indiana and she preferred to stay in the Midwest. The job at Minnesota seemed like a better fit.  But when Wooden was offered the job at Minnesota, there was a catch.  Athletic Director Frank McCormick asked Wooden if he would keep current head coach Dave MacMillan as an assistant, because MacMillan was still under contract.  Wooden wanted to bring his own assistants.  McCormick was unsure he could agree to that (and the salaries involved) without getting approval from University officials. The two agreed that McCormick would get permission and then call Wooden back at an agreed upon time. 

But McCormick didn’t call back by that time.  Thinking that Minnesota had changed their mind, Wooden agreed to take the job at UCLA.  When McCormick finally did call, Wooden told him he had already come to an agreement with UCLA, and couldn’t go back on his word.  By all accounts, Wooden was a man of great integrity.   

Minnesota then hired Osborne “Ozzie” Cowles as their next coach.  Cowles had coached Michigan to the conference championship the previous season.

John Wooden went on to become the greatest coach in the history of college basketball and built UCLA into a dynasty.  “The Wizard of Westwood” as he would come to be known, coached at UCLA for 28 years, compiling a 620-147 record. His teams won 10 National championships, the most of any coach in NCAA history. (Second place is currently occupied by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski at 5).  Wooden coached players like Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton and Gail Goodrich.

Ozzie Cowles coached at Minnesota for 11 seasons, compiling a 147-93 record, but never won a conference championship.  In the time that Wooden was at UCLA, Minnesota went though 5 different head coaches (Cowles, John Kundla, Bill Fitch, George Hanson, and Bill Musselman) ending that era with a scandal and an NCAA investigation into the basketball program that led to Musselman fleeing to take an ABA job with the San Diego Sails.  During those 28 seasons that Wooden was at UCLA, Minnesota won the conference championship only once, in 1972.  That was the same season they made their only NCAA tournament appearance of that era, winning a game against Marquette.  But that victory would be vacated due to the NCAA violations. 

Minnesota hiring Wooden could have changed the entire history and future of the basketball program.  So why didn’t McCormick return the phone call to Wooden?   The story, as legend goes, is that a "torrential snow had shut down phone lines in Minneapolis" and prevented McCormick from getting the call through to Wooden.  As we all know, winters in Minnesota are tough.  Only the heartiest and truest Minnesotan’s can handle the below zero temperatures and snow.  We're very familiar with snowstorms canceling school, ruining Halloween or deflating our Dome (5 times!).

Aw shucks!  A snowstorm prevented the greatest basketball coach of all time from coming here and taking us to the promised land.  It’s so “Minnesota Sports”.  It’s just our luck.  Right? 

The problem is, “The Blizzard” part of the story isn’t true.  Let me rephrase that. It’s probably not true.  I can’t prove that it isn’t, but I also can’t prove that it is. 

Here’s what we can prove.

-Wooden was a candidate for the job at Minnesota.

-He accepted the job at UCLA on April 20, 1948  [6]. 

That’s it.

Fast forward to April 2019.  I had recently created the “Minnesota Sports Disappointment Calendar”.  KFAN's Dan Barreiro began to use it on his show “Bumper to Bumper”, and called it the “Calendar of Calamity”.  As it started to become a regular bit, listeners and friends started offering suggestions of events to add to the Calendar.  One day, a coworker suggested “The Blizzard” story about Minnesota missing out on Wooden.  I looked it up and found documentation on the interwebs.  A “Daily Bruin” article claiming that the day “The Blizzard” caused the missed phone call, was April 17th, 1948.  [10]

When April 17th came around, I sent the event to Barreiro.  About 45 minutes before his show, was set to go on air, Barreiro messaged me asking me where I got the date (April 17) from, because he couldn’t corroborate it.  I sent him the Daily Bruin article but Barreiro suggested on air that he couldn’t find any weather data to back up the snowstorm.  This sent me down a rabbit hole and taught me a very valuable lesson about sources. 

You’ve heard people say you can’t trust everything you read on the internet?  It's true.  This wasn't the only Calendar event I had gotten incorrect by using certain web pages.  That led me to begin using the newspapers site (Not an advertisement).  As I started to regularly incorporate newspaper clips in the daily calendar posting, I often thought back to April’s Wooden event, so I began to dig into it further. 

The Daily Bruin article I originally cited said the missed phone call was on April 17, 1948, a Saturday.  In Wooden’s book, “A game Plan for Life”, he says the missed call was on a Sunday (not a Saturday) AND said that “The Blizzard” was in the Twin Cities.  I researched Minneapolis weather data for a two-week period surrounding that weekend, there were no blizzards or snow storms. Temperatures that weekend were a low of 38 and a high of 72.  Temperatures that are definitely not conducive to snow, let alone a blizzard.  Here are links to the Minneapolis Tribune weather maps from April 16-20, 1948.

April 16      April 17       April 18      April 19       April 20


Regardless of which day the missed phone call was, we know Wooden's decision was made that weekend of the 17th/18th.  On April 12th, Wooden was in LA meeting with UCLA athletic director Wilbur Johns. The next day the LA times reported the meeting took place, and that Wooden was a candidate for the UCLA job. [11]  On April 13th, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that McCormick and Wooden were meeting in Chicago that upcoming weekend to discuss the Minnesota job. [12]  If Wooden signed his UCLA contract on the 20th, the missed phone call had to happen Saturday the 17th  or Sunday the 18th after the Chicago meeting.   

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/75636244/  LA Times 4-13-48


https://www.newspapers.com/clip/75634831/  Minneapolis Tribune 4-13-48


In a 2010 Star Tribune article, Sid Hartman wrote that “The Blizzard” was in South Dakota and that McCormick had been traveling to visit a friend when the phone lines went down. [9]  I researched the weather information in South Dakota newspapers for that same weekend.  Again, no blizzards.  I did find a note in several papers that Watertown, South Dakota received 7.5” of snow on the evening of April 12/13th [15] .  But the snow melted right away and there was no mention of downed phone lines.  That was also the same day Wooden was in LA meeting with Johns, and 4 days before the missed phone call.  I also found an article that snow had knocked out phone lines in Deadwood, South Dakota on April 25th, but that was 5 days after Wooden had signed his contract with UCLA. [13] According to that story, most of those lines were repaired within a day. 

If McCormick went to visit a friend in South Dakota, it had to be after the Chicago meeting with Wooden.  If that's true, and that friend lived near Watertown, AND snow had knocked down the phone lines on the 12th/13th (which there is no documentation of), its not very likely those phone lines would still be down 4-5 days later.  Even if they were, (lots of if's here) wouldn't McCormick have known that before going there?  Its not like he was already there and was stuck when the storm hit.  It would have been well after.  The whole scenario is just not very likely.     

So if the story isn't true, where did it originate?  As far as I can tell, the story first appears in print around the time that Wooden was planning to retire in 1975.  For the record, the newspapers site doesn’t have access to every newspaper in the country.  In other words, there may have been information in other newspapers that I don’t have access to, but that seems unlikely.  When you find articles about “The Blizzard” from that time, they all have the exact same story.  Almost word-for-word in some cases, as they probably all used the same wire story as a source.  Since then, the story has become canon and part of the Wooden legend.  Its been told and retold so many times, its just accepted as true.  When Wooden died in 2010, the story resurfaced and Sports Illustrated even did a famous photo showing the juxtaposition of Wooden in a UCLA warmup and what he would’ve looked like in a Minnesota Warmup. [14]

https://assets.si.com/images/john-wooden-what-if_0.jpg

If “The Blizzard” story isn’t true, why would someone make it up?  WARNING:  Speculation ahead.  If the story originated when Wooden was about to retire, it would make sense that media were digging back through his life attempting to document and celebrate his legendary career.  It’s likely that they came across the “almost” Minnesota story.  Maybe “The Blizzard” was conjured up to protect Minnesota or someone from the University from looking bad.  April snowstorms in Minnesota are not uncommon.  What better excuse than Minnesota weather to blame it on?  Seems like an easy target and prevents anyone from being responsible for one of the biggest HR disasters in Minnesota sports history.

It's unlikely we'll ever know the truth because there isn’t anyone we can ask about it.  Sid Hartman was the only person who was around and involved in Minnesota athletics at the time.  Unfortunately, he recently passed away in October at the age of 100, after a long and legendary career covering Minnesota sports. 

In addition to the mystery of the “The Blizzard”, the Wooden story is also one of the greatest “what if's” in Minnesota sports.  There’s no way of knowing what would have happened had Wooden come to Minnesota.  We can’t assume Minnesota would’ve been as successful as UCLA was.  Let’s be honest, it's Minnesota sports.  The Star Tribune headline for Sid's article said , "Wooden missed chance to coach at U."  That headline reminds me of a quote from the movie "Office Space" when 'The Bobs' tell Peter he's been missing a lot of work lately.  Peter replies, "Well, I wouldn't say Ive been missing it, Bob."  To put it another way, one of my snarkier coworkers joked, “That snowstorm is probably the best thing to ever happen to John Wooden.”  

In case you were wondering if Ozzie Cowles, (the guy Minnesota hired after the Wooden miss), kept Dave MacMillan as an assistant coach?   He didn’t.  MacMillan retired in June of 1948 (a few months after “The Blizzard”) and was “given a full-time appointment at the University in another capacity.”  Another position within the organization....also very "Minnesota sports".


 

Sources

1. Wooden, John and Yaeger, Don. “A Game Plan for Life”

2. Hartman, Sid. “Vancisin, Herkal in as Aids” The Minneapolis Tribune (Newspapers.com) June 30, 1948

3. Gordon, Dick. “’Felt I Belonged Here, ‘ Explains Cowles; Ambition Realized” The Minneapolis Tribune (Newspapers.com) May 15, 1948

4. Gordon, Dick. “Crisler: Will Not Stand in Cowles’ Way” The Minneapolis Tribune (Newspapers.com) April 28, 1948

5. Hartman, Sid with Rippel, Joel A. “Sid Hartman’s Great Minnesota Sports Moments”

6. Unnamed Writer. “Wooden to UCLA; Off Minnesota List” The Minneapolis Star (Newspapers.com) April 20, 1948

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/46974988/ 

7. Perry, Dwight. “Just Like the Lakers, Minnesota lost John Wooden to Los Angeles” The Seattle Times (SeattleTimes.com) October 8, 2009.

8. Harvey, Randy. “Thanks to a Blizzard, Gophers Missed a Wizard” The Los Angeles Times (Newspapers.com) March 24, 1997

9. Hartman, Sid. “Wooden missed chance to coach at U” Star Tribune (Newspapers.com) June 6, 2010

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/48905208/  Star Tribune 6-6-10

10. Fahy, Claire. “Remembering John Wooden’s legacy” Daily Bruin (DailyBruin.com) February 25, 2015

https://dailybruin.com/2015/02/25/remembering-john-woodens-legacy/

11. Unnamed Writer. "New Candidate Enters Bruin Cage Picture" LA Times (Newspapers.com) April 13, 1948

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/75636244/

12. Unnamed Writer. "Indiana Coach in "U" Picture " Minneapolis Tribune (Newspapers.com) April 13, 1948

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/75634831/ 

13. Unnamed Writer. "Telephone Service Cut By Storm" Lead Daily Call (Newspapers.com) April 26, 1948

14. Sports Illustrated

https://assets.si.com/images/john-wooden-what-if_0.jpg

15. Unknown AP writer. "Heavy Snow Falls In Eastern End of S.D." Rapid City Journal (Newspapers.com) April 13, 1948

16. Newspapers.com

17. College Basketball Reference

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