Last night was all about admiring and celebrating Florida Gulf Coast’s historic run to the Sweet 16. The Eagles topped San Diego State to become the first 15 seed to make the round of 16. Of course for every FGC, which is riding a eurphoric wave into Arlington, Texas, there are dozens of teams that fall short of expectations.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are one of these teams since they fired head coach Tubby Smith after six seasons on the job. The 61-year-old exits Minneapolis with a 124-81 overall record and a 46-62 Big-10 record.
What’s surprising about the firing is that Smith led Minnesota to its best NCAA tournament finish since 1996-97 – when the Golden Gophers made the Final Four, only to have this season wiped out by academic fraud. Sure they were ousted in the second round by Florida this year; but still, this is the best they’ve done in over a decade and a half. So the question is, why did Minnesota fire Tubby Smith?
This question seems especially hard to answer since the university signed him to a three-year contract extension in July, after Tubby guided the Golden Gophers to 23 wins and an NIT runner-up finish. However, it may not be so hard to figure out when you look at how Smith’s teams have performed once February starts.
This season was a perfect example because Minnesota bolted out to a 15-1 record and was quickly climbing the AP Top 25. However, they suffered through Big-10 play and went 6-12 over the remainder of the season. Their 20-12 record turned out to be just good enough to grab a controversial 11th-seed NCAA tournament bid.
From here, it looked like Tubby might have saved his job with a first round victory over 6th-seeded UCLA, which coincidentally also fired their coach. However, the Golden Gophers looked largely noncompetitive throughout most of their 78-64 second round loss to the Florida Gators.
Rather than go through another collapsing season with Smith, Minnesota chose to buy out his remaining contract for what could be worth up to $2.5 million. So can somebody else succeed where former national champion Tubby Smith has failed? Let’s discuss the prospects as well as who else Minnesota basketball will be eyeing as a head coach.
Pros and Cons
The University of Minnesota isn’t exactly USC or Miami when it comes to weather and scenery. This state sees heavy snowfall in the winter and temperatures that commonly hit below-20 or worse. So right off the bat, the basketball program has this working against them for out-of-state recruits.
Another problem with Minnesota is that they’re up against conference giants like Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. So this team is very rarely going to be at the top of the Big-10 – let alone a national powerhouse. And this also works against them when trying to land elite recruits from around the county.
But there are definitely some positive aspects to Minnesota basketball too. And they begin with top facilities, a strong desire to win, and, most importantly, money to spend.
Another big benefit to coaching at Minnesota would be that it’s the only Division I school in the state. Considering that the Land of 10,000 Lakes produces a lot of solid players every year, this is definitely a major plus. But is it enough to intrigue a sought-after, up-and-coming coach?
Who will replace Tubby Smith at Minnesota?
The rumored frontrunner for the Golden Gophers job is VCU coach Shaka Smart. He’s remained one of the country’s hottest candidates after guiding VCU to the Final Four in 2011, and taking the Rams to back-to-back Sweet 16’s. The reason why Minnesota has a chance with Smart is because their current AD, Norwood Teague, hired him at VCU. So the debate here will be if a previous relationship is enough to lure Smart away.
Odds are that it isn’t, especially considering that the 35-year-old has turned down several better jobs – including a $2.5 million offer from Illinois. And even if Smart decides to stay in Richmond, Virginia, he’ll receive a $1.36 million salary that includes plenty of bonuses.
Assuming he’s out of the picture, there are still plenty of other quality options such as Marquette’s Buzz Williams, former UCLA coach Ben Howland, and FGC coach Andy Enfield. Williams is being tabbed because of a good relationship with Teague, and a bad relationship with Marquette AD Larry Williams. Enfield is obviously a hot pick because of what we discussed before with FGC’s Sweet 16 run. And Howland had plenty of success at UCLA before succumbing to high expectations and a large number of transfers.
Whoever Minnesota ends up with, it’ll definitely be an accomplished coach who’s capable of leading them to success.