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A refreshing U of M change: Tubby Smith’s firing had to happen

He’s gone because Athletic Director Norwood Teague decided mediocrity and underachievement are no longer acceptable in Dinkytown.

smith portrait
REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson
Smith did not fail here; he just didn’t succeed enough.

La Salle University is a modest-sized Catholic school in northwestern Philadelphia. If you filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket or happened by a television this week, you probably know that La Salle made it to the so-called “Sweet Sixteen” for the first time since 1955, long before anyone actually called it the “Sweet Sixteen.” It represented a stunning achievement for a team that last made the NCAA field in 1992.

I covered La Salle’s two NCAA Tournament games in Kansas City last weekend for The New York Times, and I immediately thought of the Explorers this morning when news spread that the University of Minnesota fired its basketball coach, Tubby Smith, after six seasons.

That move completed a daily double of weird karma. Minnesota beat UCLA in an NCAA second-round game on Friday and, three days later, Smith and the Bruins’ Ben Howland were both are out of work.

Regarding Smith: This had to happen.

He’s gone because Minnesota’s first-year athletic director, Norwood Teague, decided mediocrity and underachievement are no longer acceptable in Dinkytown. It’s a refreshing change that indicates more than anything that Teague is not from Minnesota.

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He’s trying to change the U’s stodgy, we’ve-always-done-it-this-way culture, and he rejects the maddening notion among certain born-and-bred Minnesotans that being too successful is somehow a bad thing.

“Tubby has had a long and distinguished career, and we feel it’s time for a fresh set of eyes for our student-athletes and our program in general,” Teague said in a statement.

Smith did not fail here; he just didn’t succeed enough. That’s an important distinction.

Smith’s three NCAA Tournament bids and two NIT appearances over six years represented progress for a program that landed on NCAA probation five times since 1976, tied for the most in the country.

Smith’s predecessor, Dan Monson, inherited the garbage scow left by Clem Haskins and steered it clear of trouble. Smith improved on Monson’s groundwork. Thanks to them, Minnesota shook its rep as a rogue program, which should appeal to the next group of coaching candidates.

But Smith proved to be a better recruiter than a strategist, and that may have ultimately led to this. Not the lack of a practice facility. Not an antiquated arena.  Not any of the other excuses you’ve been hearing.

You can’t beat six nationally-ranked teams, including No. 1 Indiana, as the Gophers did this season, with lousy players. Smith recruited talent.

Some of it left (Royce White, Colton Iverson, Justin Cobbs, Devoe Joseph) and he never got enough out of the ones who stayed. Too often, his players appeared listless or surprised, and Smith rarely responded with anything more than a confused look.  Northwestern uses a 1-3-1 zone as its base defense, but Minnesota’s players acted like they never saw one before in a 55-48 road loss on Jan. 23.

The next coach should be someone with Division I head coaching and recruiting experience, probably at a mid-major, itching to take the next step. Teague won’t get a big name without a lead donor commitment to a practice facility. That’s just the way it works. He doesn’t need one anyway.

It better be someone with a record of mining talent-rich areas of the country — Chicagoland, greater New York City, the Philly/southern New Jersey area, Washington D.C./Maryland/Virginia, Southern California, etc. — because this state produces too few good players, and Bo Ryan grabs the lunch-pail types for Wisconsin. Smith and his staff chose to recruit the South. That’s fine if you play in the Southeastern Conference, but not in the Big Ten, which requires rugged players plus depth.

La Salle bobs up as an example of a school that succeeded without throwing stupid money at a perceived problem. It plays in a tiny campus arena named for Tom Gola, its iconic player from the 1950s who still holds the NCAA career record for rebounding. There is no practice facility. It dealt with its own scandal in 2004, forcing coach Billy Hahn to resign after three of his players were accused of rape.

Hahn’s successor, John Giannini, coached at Division III Rowan in the Philadelphia suburbs and Division I Maine before taking the La Salle job. Athletic director Tom Brennan stuck with Giannini through five losing seasons out of seven before the Explorers came through, qualifying for the NIT last year to set up their NCAA Tournament run. La Salle has four kids from Philly and, curiously, a guard from Burnsville, D.J. Peterson.

If it can happen at La Salle, it can happen here. I’m not suggesting Giannini as a candidate; Teague undoubtedly has a well-researched short list and certainly doesn’t need my help. We already know from the North Carolina football payout that Teague, unlike Joel Maturi, couldn’t care less what the public thinks of his decisions. Now he just needs to pick the right guy.