Music to his ears

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 12, 1999

When a basketball game used to concern Oscar Haddorff – really concern him – he would eat cookies and play the piano.

Friday, November 12, 1999

When a basketball game used to concern Oscar Haddorff – really concern him – he would eat cookies and play the piano.

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Mind you, he didn’t play it too well.

"He pecks away at it," said Haddorff’s wife, Marian, herself a far more accomplished piano player.

"My mother was a piano teacher," Haddorff said, "but she fired me. I wouldn’t practice enough."

The same could never be said of Haddorff’s basketball teams.

Haddorff’s Austin High teams won 198 games from 1964-78 – an average of 14 wins per season in an era when schedules were two-thirds the length of today’s 25-game seasons.

Haddorff’s shining coaching career will take center stage Saturday at the DoubleTree Park Place Hotel in St. Louis Park. There, Haddorff will be inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame.

"I’m really excited," Haddorff said. "I never expected anything like this. I thought this was all done."

It’s fitting that the ultimate tribute will come in the Twin Cities, where Austinites once flocked to the long-since torn down Curtis Hotel.

That’s where Packers fans stayed come state tournament time. And state tournament time came often for Austin.

Two years after Haddorff joined Austin as Ove Berven’s assistant, Austin won its third state title in 1958.

Haddorff, who spent eight seasons as Ove’s apprentice, still marvels at his predecessor’s unprecedented run – 14 state appearances in 25 years.

"Austin had such a strong tradition," Haddorff said. "I took it as a challenge. Everybody expected us to get to state."

Haddorff’s teams never reached Ove’s Wooden-esque level of dominance. Haddorff’s Packers garnered one state appearance (1972) and three Big Nine titles (1969-74-75).

Nonetheless, Haddorff kept alive Austin’s winning basketball tradition while guiding the team through difficult transitions.

The rise to prominence of Rochester and its schools in the late-1960s and 1970s brought an end to Austin’s stake as the biggest and best school in the area.

Under Haddorff, the school district dropped its control over the youth basketball program because of economic concerns.

Contrarily, Berven, who started the youth program, had top-to-bottom authority over basketball in Austin. By the time Ove’s players reached the high school team, they already played the Ove way.

Haddorff wasn’t so lucky; he never had the same impact in developing the youth that fed his program.

Still, the seasons under Haddorff were winning and exciting ones.

Three times, in 1964, 69 and 71, Haddorff’s Packers fell one step shy of state.

Then in 1972, the Packers pulled it off, reaching state with a remarkable run.

The Packers lost three games in the Big Nine that year – to Faribault, John Marshall and Mankato.

Austin avenged all three losses in the playoffs and reached the state tournament.

"I felt pretty good about that," Haddorff said. "That was fun to set the record straight."

The Packers lost to Mounds View in the state title game that year.

In that game, Austin "packed it in" to stop Mounds View’s taller front court. The Mustangs outside shooters took advantage and made shots that put them up early.

At halftime, Haddorff switched the defense to a man-to-man. The Packers chomped at the heels of Mounds View throughout the remainder of the game, but never recovered from falling behind early.

"I felt we had a chance in that game," Haddorff said.

With Haddorff at the helm, the Packers always had a chance.

He might peck away at piano keys, but he pulled all the right strings as a Hall of Fame coach.