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The Blizzard of Westwood

posted Nov 27, 2020, 11:22 AM by Dan Whenesota   [ updated Dec 12, 2020, 10:02 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 snowstorm knocked down phone lines 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. 

That’s it.

Fast forward to April 2019.  I had recently created the “Minnesota Sports Disappointment Calendar”.  Dan Barreiro began to use it on his show “Bumper to Bumper” on KFAN radio, 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.

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

On the Calendar it went.  When April 17th came around, I sent the event to Barreiro.  At about 2:15 pm that day, I received a Twitter message from Barreiro asking me where I got the date (April 17) from, because he couldn’t corroborate it.  I was at work and couldn’t respond until I was done.  Barreiro’s show aired at 3pm.  Not only that, I couldn’t remember where I had found the date.  In my anxiety filled head, I thought, this could be the end of the “bit”.  Did I just give Barreiro the wrong date?  Will he ever trust me again?  As soon as work was done and I got home, I raced through my notes and found the Daily Bruin article with the date.  Whew!  Crisis averted right?  Not so fast.  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 was the first of a few Calendar event dates 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 and how it almost killed the project, 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. 

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.   I researched the weather information in South Dakota newspapers during the same time period.  Again, no blizzards. 

I then tried to track down where the story originated.  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. 

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 ifs” 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.  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 (like Wooden was asked to do)?   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 in the organization - so “Minnesota sports”.

 

Sources

Star Tribune

Daily Bruin

LA Times

Sports Illustrated

Newspapers.com

College Basketball Reference

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