By Charles Hallman
Only two coaches in Minnesota men’s basketball history have ever led teams to a national championship: Clem Haskins won two NIT crowns in the 1990s, and Tubby Smith won the 1998 NCAA title at Kentucky. Both Black men have the most 20-win seasons: seven for Haskins and five for Smith.
However, both men also have the dubious honor to have been fired at Minnesota.
Despite a 511-226 career record in 22 seasons, Smith unfortunately is a victim of college sports’ “What have you done for me lately?” philosophy.
“When you let a guy go with the character and the skill of Tubby Smith, you better have an idea of somebody who can turn things around, and I don’t know of any of the elite coaches [seeking the Gophers job],” says Washington, D.C. radio host Mark Gray. “I don’t know what direction they are going, but you are trading a sense of value when you disrespect a guy who’s a Hall of Fame-caliber coach.”
Minnesota AD Norwood Teague thinks that the next coach will have an easier time than Smith did selling the idea to blue-chippers that playing in a “classic” Williams Arena, a place that only looks good when it’s full of people, is an urban hoopster’s dream.
“It’s hard to get James and Joe to come to Minnesota to play college basketball,” says Gray. “Minnesota basketball doesn’t have a storied reputation with the people that I know on the AAU circuit. Minnesota is a hard sell.”
Whereas to most kids today, especially top players whose history sense goes back to their last Twitter tweet, Minnesota falls painfully short in comparison to more legendary and better programs. The Gophers are nothing more than a fourth-tier team that only has exactly two first-place Big Ten finishes since 1981, the year I relocated to the state.
“It’s just another team in the Big Ten,” notes Robert Littal of BlackSportsOnline on Minnesota, which isn’t a destination place but a career killer for coaches. That’s a hard truth pill for most locals to swallow.
“I don’t know who views this program as ‘legitimate’…or who views the program as a basketball powerhouse that can get to the NCAA tournament on a regular basis,” notes former KFAN host Henry Lake.
“You got to have at least three legitimate stars to have a shot to make the move to the next level, or you got to have one of those seasons where you catch lightening in a bottle. Waiting for that one season…gets a lot of coaches fired,” says Gray.
When can you remember Minnesota having that many stars? 1997? 1989? The early ‘80s?
While Michigan State has Tom Izzo, Indiana has a storied program, and Michigan once had the Fab Five, “You go to Minnesota…Kevin McHale [1977-80] and Mychal Thompson [1975-78] are great players… Willie Burton [1987-90] and Melvin Newbern [1988-90] led [them] to the Elite Eight, and kids say ‘Who?’ You can’t sell kids on that,” says Gray.
“I think what makes it work or will make it work is salesmanship. Minnesota is not a Duke or a Kentucky… You have to go out and make people want to come here,” believes former Gopher Randy Carter (1991-94). “If you look around at me [a Memphis native] — there is so much more than basketball… The coaches that sat in my living room and recruited me to Minnesota explained that to me. ‘You will have the opportunity to have a long and successful career [here], whether it is in sports or in the work field.’”
On the next coach, Carter says, “When I look around a lot of programs, and a lot of successful programs, all those teams have assistant coaches who were former players and who have grown up with the program. I think that speaks volumes to a high school kid when you can send a former Gopher to sit in his living room and talk with him.
“There’s some great talent coming out of Minnesota. It seems that those kids aren’t even considering Minnesota.”
A SBNation.com writer wrote last week that Minnesota is a program that demands “unprecedented success” but now must spend “$2.5 million on axing a guy who was doing a perfectly good job.” The Gopher job is not a destination one but a career killer.
Therefore, if Teague will find someone better who will do better than the man he just fired, then we quote that canine philosopher Astro from The Jetsons: “Rotso Ruck!” (Lots of luck!)
Finally, as for Smith’s legacy, Gray surmises, “I don’t think over the past 20 years there has been a more underappreciated coach in America than Tubby Smith. He was disrespected at Kentucky — nobody ever gave him credit for his national championship because they say [he won] with [former coach Rick] Pitino’s kids.”
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Tubby Smith,” concludes Lake. “I think he leaves a legacy at the University of Minnesota of coaching through tough times when he battled through cancer. He’s a fighter and a champion. Those are all the things I think of when I think of Tubby Smith.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, or read his “Another View” blog on challman.wordpress.com.