Patrick Reusse
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Jim Dutcher was in his second season as Gophers basketball coach in 1976-77. On the court, a Gophers team led by Mychal "Bells" Thompson and Ray "Sugar" Williams was 24-3 overall and 15-3 in the Big Ten.

The losses were twice to conference champion Michigan and at Purdue. The wins included beating Al McGuire's lone NCAA title team with Marquette in Milwaukee, 66-59, in December and sweeping Indiana, with a 79-60 drubbing of the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall.

The Gophers were adjudged by the NCAA Infractions Committee to deserve probation after the investigation that led to Bill Musselman's departure in 1975. All games were declared to be forfeits, although no bureaucrat could take away the joy of Sugar Ray burying Bobby Knight's athletes on their home court.

Craig Thompson was working for the Minnesota Daily and helped to cover Musselman's last season and Dutcher's first. Then he became the student assistant in the sports information department. The No. 1 lesson he learned in those duties was diplomacy. Bob Peterson was the boss. Tom Greenhoe was the assistant. "Oil and water … those two,'' Thompson said Tuesday.

Thompson was the owner of an Opel GT. "It was a two-seater that wasn't much of an upgrade over a Vespa,'' he said.

Williams was the 10th overall selection by his hometown New York Knicks in the 1977 NBA draft. Mychal Thompson was back as a senior with a chance to be the national player of the year (Marquette's Butch Lee won it).

Then, it was revealed Thompson and Gophers forward Dave Winey had sold complimentary tickets to members of those sold-out crowds the previous season.

On Nov. 14, 1977, Thompson was suspended for the first seven games and Winey for three. There went any player of the year consideration, although the consolation prize later for Mychal was being the first choice in the 1978 NBA draft by Portland.

"Bob Peterson felt bad for Mychal and David,'' Craig Thompson said. "He told me to bring them to his hangout in St. Paul: Dutch Del Monte's on Rice Street. I had to put those two 6-10 guys in the front seats of the Opel. I'm reasonably tall, and had to crouch into the space in the back.

"We got to Dutch's and out came these big steaks for all of us, including Mychal and David. Great meal, but I'm thinking, 'Didn't we just come off probation because of this?'"

Craig Thompson wound up in athletic administration. He was the commissioner of the American South and Sun Belt Conferences for a dozen years, then became commissioner of the new Mountain West (as the split from the WAC was taking place) in 1998. He was chairman of the Division I men's basketball selection committee from 1995 to 2000. He just came off four more years on that committee, including the 2020 cancellation because of the pandemic.

Now, Thompson's two-year duty on a four-person College Football Playoff committee appears set to bring a seismic shift as to how a national champion is decided.

Greg Stankey (SEC), Bob Bowlsby (Big 12) and Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame) were representing the Power Five. Thompson was the voice from the Group of Five, representing the Mountain West, MAC, American, Conference USA and Sun Belt.

Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson.
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson.

Kirk Kenney, TNS

"We were reacting to concerns that the four-team playoff wasn't serving its purpose and losing interest to a degree," Thompson said. "People wanted to see more teams than Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma in the playoff.

"We looked at six teams, and that wouldn't really open things up. We looked at eight and, frankly, that probably wasn't going to address our [Group of Five]. Twelve became the right number, with the caveat the top six rated conference champs will receive automatic placement."

Six is a magic number for conference champions, because it slots in the winners of the Power Five conferences, then adds the highest-rated Group of Five champion.

As the CFP committee was finalizing its recommendation, massive changes were taking place across Division I:

Athletes in football, basketball and baseball would now have one free transfer as undergraduates. Athletes could sell their name, image and likeness (NIL), and a select few are set to gain large dollars. Then, Texas and Oklahoma applied for SEC membership and were accepted, sending the Big 12 on the recruiting trail to enlist Central Florida, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU.

Thompson's Mountain West maintains the same 11 schools (plus Hawaii in football). The commissioner didn't mention this, but you never know when a San Diego State or Boise State might get plucked.

For now, the MWC keeps trying the improve on last year's record $50 million distributed in total to its teams in 2021 — and doing so in the knowledge that's roughly what the Big Ten hands out per team.

The NIL deals now available were mentioned and Thompson was asked:

"Now that athletes, such as Hopkins' Paige Bueckers at UConn, can secure nice incomes as college athletes, do you feel less guilt over watching Mychal and Winey devour those free steaks 44 years ago?"

The Commissioner said that was the case, and added:

"I also feel less inclined to judge Flip (Saunders) harshly for all the times I saw him drive off in that 'Green Oldsmobile' that racked up so many violations in the Musselman investigation.''