Its record is safe. Its place in school history never was in question.
While the 1976-77 Gophers men's basketball team could have had its 16-1 start scrubbed from the school record books by this year's team, its beguiling mix of talent, personality and circumstance were never approached.
The numbers themselves - that 16-1 start, a 24-3 finish - tell only a fraction of the story. Two decades later, the names - Mychal Thompson, Kevin McHale, Ray Williams, Osborne Lockhart, Flip Saunders, even Dave Winey - mean more.
'No one knew how good that team was until we were done playing,' said Saunders, the point guard.
No one knew then because that was the best team that never was, its opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament removed by recruiting violations during the Bill Musselman years. That team, a collection of six scholarship players, six walk-ons and led by second-year coach Jim Dutcher, finished 24-3, but is 0-27 in the NCAA's eyes. That's because Thompson was ruled ineligible for selling his season tickets.
Saunders calls it the 'best six-scholarship team ever' and said the Gophers would have won the national championship that season. Three months before Marquette won the national title in coach Al McGuire's final season, the Gophers led Marquette by 24 points and won by six, in Milwaukee.
'That team had a spirit and a tough-mindedness that I don't think I'd ever seen before, or maybe since,' Dutcher said.
It had character, and characters. Even then, Thompson, a junior, and McHale, a freshman, were prepping to become perennial selections to the NBA's all-interview team. 'Mychal and Kevin always kind of had minds of their own,' Dutcher said.
And peculiar fashion tastes. McHale, the unabashed kid from the Iron Range, arrived late for the team bus the morning after an eight-point victory, grinning and wearing one of those oversized Big Red Nebraska cowboy hats.
Thompson preferred a style more fitting his Bahamian heritage. 'Mike was pompons, jingle bells and puka shells,' Saunders said, referring to the tassels and bells Thompson wore on his shoes and the chain he wore around his neck. 'The great thing about playing with Mychal is you always knew where he was when you were running the break because you could hear him coming, jing-jing-jing.'
And run the Gophers did. Thompson - a future No. 1 NBA draft pick who is host of a radio sports-talk show in Portland - was the gifted inside scorer (22 points a game). McHale and Winey were the lanky shot blockers and rebounders. Williams ran the wing and impressed onlookers with an athleticism that one night brought fans to their feet in Detroit when he went around four opponents, took off from a stride inside the free-throw line and dunked.
'Ray was an athlete,' said Dan Kosmoski, a little-used sophomore sub from Owatonna. 'We'd be working out in the gym and Ray would walk in, go up and dunk with his leather coat, his platform shoes and his backpack on, just to be silly.'
Williams became the first to play in the NBA and the only player, Saunders now jokes, who thought he should receive an assist every time he scored. Lockhart, the long-range shooter, played for the Harlem Globetrotters. Saunders - who averaged 32 points a game in high school in Ohio - was the unsung engineer who gravitated to coaching when his playing career ended after that season.
'I always tell people the only reason I played was because I was the only guy who would take the ball out of bounds,' Saunders said.
Back then, there was none of the current grumbling among the Williams Arena faithful about the coach's playing rotations. Six guys played, and Dutcher employed a match-up zone defense to help conserve players' energy.
The rest - remember Kosmoski, Steve Lingenfelter, Pat Foschi, David Carroll, Bill Zagar and Chris (only one B) Weber? - mostly sat. 'But we cheered like heck,' said Kosmoski, a former Gophers assistant who now coaches St. Olaf.
If Saunders or Lockhart ever needed a rest - which wasn't often - Williams
was moved from his forward spot. McHale started as the team's sixth man, but soon Winey, who now lives in Burnsville and works in the investment business, became the first, and only, man off the bench.
'We may have played 4-on-5 if we got in foul trouble,' said McHale, who was selected third overall by Boston in the 1980 NBA draft. 'But the guys who didn't play knew they wouldn't play and they had a ball.'
The team's nucleus had been recruited by Musselman. When the NCAA investigation and ensuing punishment hit, underclassmen Mark Olberding and Mark Landsberger left. Those who remained were sought by NCAA and Big Ten officials for follow-up interviews most of that season.
Saunders said those circumstances contributed to the special bond the players felt. McHale attributed it mostly to youth.
'That team was special for me because it was the first time,' said McHale, the Timberwolves' vice president of basketball operations. 'The first time you do anything is memorable. In the pros, the camaraderie is so different. When I was 22, I was playing with guys 34 and 35. What did I have in common with them? When I got to the `U,' I was 18 and I was playing with guys 19, 20 and 21.'
Two of that team's losses came against Michigan, the other in two overtimes at Purdue.
All 27 games were played without today's 35-second shot clock and three-point line. Said Saunders: 'If we had the three-pointer, I don't think we would have lost a game.'