Did Minnesota Make a Mistake In Firing Tubby Smith?Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 26th, 2013
Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of RTC. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.
After six seasons in Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota fired its head basketball coach Tubby Smith. The firing certainly comes as a surprise to the hoops world because the Gophers just finished their best season under Smith: an overall record of 21-13 with a convincing win over UCLA in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. Smith led the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament during three out of his six seasons there but only won once in the Big Dance and never finished in the top four of the Big Ten during the regular season. A 124-81 record (60%) may not seem to support the firing but a closer look at Smith’s six seasons and the future of the Big Ten shows that the Gophers could stand to benefit with a coaching change. The following are three reasons why this move is a beneficial one for the Gophers.
- The Big Ten regular season matters just as much as the postseason. Three appearances in the NCAA Tournament and a finalist in the NIT last season may work for many programs but the Minnesota athletic department has clearly sent a message that it expects to be at the top of the best conference in the nation. Smith finished with a record of 46-42 within conference play, and his teams were never a consistent threat to win the league. Big Ten programs take pride in winning the regular season championship and perennial contenders such as Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State are household names every year from January through mid-March. Without a more competitive team in league play, the Gophers will never be able to shed an image of a bubble team that frets on Selection Sunday.
- The rest of the Big Ten is only getting better and the Gophers can’t move in the other direction. Four out of the remaining 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament are from the Big Ten and this year may not be an anomaly. Indiana was down during Smith’s first three seasons but they seemed to have finally made it all the way back to their blue-blood stature under Tom Crean. Crean has built a well-oiled machine in Bloomington and the Hoosiers are poised to contend with established programs such as Michigan State and Ohio State over the next few seasons. We know by now never to doubt a Wisconsin team coached by Bo Ryan and if you factor in Michigan’s resurgence, there are five teams that are likely to remain at the top of the conference better than the Gophers. Outside of those five schools, Fran McCaffery is ready to lead Iowa back to the NCAA Tournament as soon as next season as well. Keeping this upward trend in mind, Minnesota can’t afford to regress like it did during the Big Ten season this year, as they struggled to string together consecutive good games after the start of February. The leash is very short for the next head coach after this move because a lost season could very quickly set the Gophers back in a competitive conference.
- The Minnesota AD said it was time for a “fresh set of eyes” on the program. Let’s call this one the John Groce Effect when a young energetic coach infuses energy into a talented team to provide the program with a new direction. The Gophers have a talented backcourt in Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman, but Smith couldn’t figure out a way to motivate them during the second half of the season. He didn’t lose control of his team but clearly the guards were not responding as they had been, and sometimes a team just needs a different voice in charge to change their attitude. Bruce Weber had talent in Champaign but couldn’t get guards D.J.Richardson and Brandon Paul to take it to the next level, but Groce was able to get through to them by beating Indiana, Gonzaga and Butler this season. It wouldn’t be surprising for the next head coach in Minneapolis to take the talented backcourt and surprise everyone in the Big Ten next season. Even Nebraska’s Tim Miles changed the overall energy of the Cornhuskers program this year, and the Gophers administration may be looking for a similar change in Minnesota.
In today’s age where every team in the Big Ten is constantly looking for ways to improve themselves, a program can’t afford to miss a window to make a necessary change. If the right move isn’t made, a recruiting class could be lost and that could affect the program for at least years to come. It appears that the Gophers will go after VCU’s Shaka Smart or Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall as their next head coach. But even if one of them takes the job, which is a separate discussion altogether, they will not have very long to deliver in the competitive Big Ten, or they could be on the hot seat as well. Is that an unfair expectation? Possibly, but the bar needs to be set high in this conference if the Golden Gophers want to remain relevant.