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

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.

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/25/2013 - 08:13 pm.

    Pure drivel

    Spend the money on academics. Period. Play in the MIAC

  2. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 03/25/2013 - 08:46 pm.


    Tubby was required to coach in an uncorrupted environment. The U of M had been sanctioned for rules violations which occured under Clem Haskens’ administration.

    Clem Haskens won by cheating. My impression is that the U of M boosters want to go back to the corrupted, cheating environment.

    Given the handcuffs of having to be honest, I think Tubby did a good job.

    Finally, it is abusurd that a fired coach like Tubby is paid millions. We pay the university president less than $500,000. The governor of the State of Minnesota is paid under $200,000.

    This whole process gives the impression that education and honesty do not matter. All that seems to matter is the big money offered by the boosters. It is just plain nuts.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/25/2013 - 10:32 pm.

    This is trivia

    A university — especially a taxpayer-funded university — is not, and cannot be allowed to be, about sports. Sports are not important. N. O. T. Important. Sports are children’s games. A community or region or state that pays its university coaches more than its university professors of academic subjects deserves to die an agonizing death. Its priorities are almost exactly the reverse of what they ought to be. No one should be going to a university in order to play basketball, or football, or tennis, or baseball, or any other sport. The reason for the university’s existence is to educate the young people of the state or area that university serves. As far as I could tell over my 15 seasons as a high school head coach, there are no “life lessons” taught by sports (except the obvious skills necessary to play the sport) that cannot be taught equally well, and often better, in environments completely unrelated to athletics.

    If the U really wants to be a first-class research university, make the sports intramural rather than intercollegiate, ditch 90% of the athletic budget as a result of not having to recruit, or travel to games 1,000 miles away, or field teams in sports that routinely endanger the health of participants, or worry about whether Minnesotans are “winners.” As Logan Foreman suggests, put that money into academics, and try to forget the many millions of dollars completely wasted on the new football stadium that will add nothing to the university’s reputation for innovation or scholarship.

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/26/2013 - 10:50 am.

    College football joke

    The saying about college football, 80% play by the rules , 20% go to bowl games. Look at top football programs like USC, Alabama, Ohio State, they are always on the NCAA radar.
    The bigger questions is where is all the money to pay off Tubby coming from?

  5. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/26/2013 - 10:56 am.

    College football joke

    The saying about college football, 80% play by the rules , 20% go to bowl games. Look at top football programs like USC, Alabama, Ohio State, they are always on the NCAA radar.
    The bigger questions is where is all the money to pay off Tubby coming from?

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