Tubby Smith and other Gophers head coaches were invited to a question-and-answer session with "U" president Dr. Eric Kaler on Saturday. It was their opportunity to talk with the individual who will be solely responsible for hiring their new boss.
That new athletic director will be busy this summer, but perhaps his or her biggest decision will involve what to do with Smith's contract. One way or another, something is expected to happen before next season starts. That's why Smith, I'm sure, had a few suggestions for Dr. Kaler.
Smith, the state's highest paid employee, turns 61 in June and is under contract through the 2013-2014 season. It contains a buyout of $2 million until May 1, 2012, and reduces to $1.5 million until April 30, 2013. In other words, unless Smith retires (doubtful) or leaves for another job (even more doubtful), neither of which would require him paying a termination fee, he isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future. It's a great contract and another example of an attorney/agent out-negotiating the University.
The question then becomes what to do when Smith and his attorney, Ricky Lefft, insist that an extension is necessary for recruiting purposes. They've held that stance for nearly two years, and nearly had an agreement last summer.
The case for Smith:
- The program, in spite of being the only Big Ten school with no other practice options when its arena is occupied, is in better shape than when Smith took it over. He has six wins vs. top-10 teams. He has wins at Wisconsin and Illinois. When he beat No. 6 Indiana earlier this year, it ended a 43-game road losing streak against ranked teams. Sure, some of those losses were with Smith, but it just shows you how low the program had been for some time.
- For the first time in six years, this looks like the season when a sub-.500 conference record may be good enough for an NCAA Tournament berth. If Smith can get to 8-10 in the No. 1 RPI conference, without star Trevor Mbakwe, this will be his finest season yet.
- We've seen enough from the core of this team to think they will be competent again next year. This is assuming Williams doesn't go pro or that someone transfers.
- Be careful what you wish for: you really believe that the "U" can do markedly better than Smith? Enough passionate Gophers fans would like to see Flip Saunders as coach immediately. Saunders, about to turn 57, hasn't recruited since the mid-'80s when he was an assistant at Tulsa. While Saunders could sell kids on his NBA experience, the running joke about him has always been about his complicated offense. It would be difficult to think college players could easily grasp it. He's tantalizing, but could also be in play in two years. Colorado State’s Tim Miles, another popular name, will also have interest whenever the job opens.
- It's easy to forget that this team hasn't won an NCAA game since 1997, and has never been to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years. Heck, even Utah State has done that. Locally, this might be viewed as an elite job, but nationally it's not. With no practice facility, limited resources for visiting recruits, and uncertainty for the time being with who the new athletic director will be, at best, it’s the 8th best job in the conference.
The case against Smith:
- There's little debate that Smith is a Hall-of-Famer. So, where has that coaching magic been? He's 37-47 in Big Ten games, 16-19 in games decided by six points or less. In addition, he's had four losses by 7, 8, or 9 points that were very winnable with less than four minutes left. Whether it's bad play designs, poor execution, the wrong personnel on the floor, missed free throws, or injuries, the team has disappointed far too often in crunch time.
- Prior to Purdue’s Matt Painter signing an extension after being wined-and-dined by Missouri last offseason, Smith was the 4th highest paid coach in the conference. At that money, losing 11 of 12 to end last season should never happen. Losing one player shouldn’t hinder an entire year. Smith, stubborn to a fault, struggled for far too long to accept responsibility for falsely moving Blake Hoffarber to point guard. Even after last Thursday’s loss to Wisconsin when I asked him about poor fouling strategy in overtime, he said the players messed up. This is as forgiving a sports market as there is, so it’s ok to occasionally accept blame.
- I'm sure Smith would like to run more, and some of it is who they're playing and how they can control the tempo, but the Gophers don't play an exciting brand of basketball. Winning trumps everything, but entertaining recruits and the fanbase means something.
- John Anderson, the baseball coach, almost single-handedly raised $5.8 million for the new stadium. Why isn’t Smith more active in chasing down potential donors for a new practice facility? Surely, many other coaches would be more front-and-center.
- He was able to beat out big-name schools for recruits Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs. If he won those guys over with only two years remaining on his contract, why can't he convince others?
- The Minnesota high school sophomore class with Apple Valley's Tyus Jones, Cooper's Rashad Vaughn, and DeLaSalle's Reid Travis is the best in years. Can Smith recruit at a high enough level to land at least two of those three? Making it more difficult is his uncertain future if any of those players committed. In other words, this idea belongs as much in the former category as this one.
The simple solution, especially if they make the NCAA tournament this year, is to extend him
The more complicated stance is to do it, but to make it a Tim Brewster or Don Lucia-like extension with protection for the University.
Would Smith go along with that? Does he really have much of a choice unless he's comfortable with retiring or working part-time for an NBA team?
As fascinating as the rest of the season will be, the offseason will be the same.