Tubby Smith arrived at Minnesota six years ago amid great fanfare and expectations, a coach with a national championship on his résumé expected to revive a men’s basketball program that had descended to the lower levels of the Big Ten. Smith was fired Monday for largely failing to deliver on that hype, a move Athletic Director Norwood Teague said he hoped fans would view “as an investment in the future.”
That investment comes with a hefty price tag. Smith received a three-year extension last July that netted him a buyout of $2.5 million, and that, along with the firing of all of Smith’s assistant coaches, and the ensuing hiring of replacements, is likely to cost at least $6 million.
Teague put no timetable on a new hire, but said he would not employ a search firm, a sign that the search should move quickly and that Teague is confident in his ability to make a strong hire. Teague said athletic directors “always have a shortlist” of coaching candidates, and said he would interview both local and national candidates.
“I feel it’s time for a fresh approach for our basketball program, for our student athletes and the program in general,” said Teague, who replaced Joel Maturi as athletic director last June. “We felt now, following a season where there were high expectations for this coaching staff, that it was time to make a change.”
Criticism of Smith had become rampant in recent weeks. The Gophers started this season 15-1 and climbed to a No. 8 national ranking. But then, like in so many of Smith’s past Gophers teams, the bottom dropped out. Minnesota went 6-12 after that strong start, finished 8-10 in the Big Ten and lost in the first round of the conference tournament. The Gophers won their first NCAA tournament game in Smith’s six seasons last Thursday, then were beaten by Florida in the tournament’s round of 32 on Sunday.
Teague declined to cite specifics behind his decision, saying that the firing of Smith was based on the coach’s “whole body of work.”
Smith’s teams never finished above .500 in Big Ten play, and his overall conference record was 46-62. His teams generally started strong then faded; the past three years the Gophers had a combined 48-16 record entering February, and a 5-17 record during the month. Attendance had been on the decline for several years, to 11,316 in 2011-12, a drop of more than 2,000 fans per game over two seasons.
Smith’s Minnesota programs had also been marked by transfers of talented players, and several recent disciplinary problems. The exodus of players leaving Smith’s program with remaining eligibility included Devoe Joseph, Colton Iverson, Justin Cobbs, Paul Carter and Royce White. Within the past year Smith’s son, Saul, and team star Trevor Mbakwe each faced drunken-driving arrests.
One Twin Cities resident well-versed in Gophers basketball, former coach Jim Dutcher, said he wasn’t surprised by Teague’s decision. The Gophers never showed the sort of upward movement expected from a coach with Smith’s previous track record.
“When [Teague] said ‘the ability to recruit,’ I thought, in six years [under Smith] the Gopher have not had a guy drafted by the NBA, in six years they have not had a first-team all-conference player,” Dutcher said. “So when you look at recruiting, and ask, ‘Did he do a great job?’ you’d have to say no.”
Dutcher also questioned Smith’s ability to develop the talent he did recruit. Most of Smith’s top recruits, Dutcher said, “were not much better as seniors than they were as freshmen.”
Steep price tag
Reports of Smith’s firing appeared online on at least two separate sites before Teague personally informed Smith of his firing early Monday afternoon.
“No one intentionally did that,” Teague said. “Things leak, and that’s just the way it is.”
Still, Smith took news of the firing well, Teague said.
“I tell you what, he was very gracious,” Teague said. “I could see the disappointment in his eyes, and that’s hard to tell Tubby [news like that]. I don’t think he was totally surprised.”
Smith was unavailable for interviews, but said in a statement released by the university: “Our staff did things the right way and will leave knowing that the program is in far better shape than when we arrived.”
Smith took the Gophers to three NCAA tournaments in his six seasons; they went only once under his predecessor, Dan Monson.
That the Gophers were in better shape than before Smith arrived left some people wondering whether the decision made sense, especially financially. The university has been under scrutiny for its administrative costs, described as out of control by a January Wall Street Journal report.
The university had already paid more than $4 million since 2006 to former coaches Monson (basketball), Glen Mason (football) and Tim Brewster (football).
Smith’s three-year extension signed last July raised his buyout after this season from $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said she would not enter a debate on whether the firing was justified.
“But it is my responsibility to provide oversight to financial management,” she said. “And I was concerned that his contract was extended with an increased buyout if there were concerns about his performance.”
There have been suggestions that private donors would help defray some of the buyout costs, and Teague did not deny that possibility, saying only that the buyout costs would “be out of athletic department funds,” which include fundraising.
He said the athletic budget was “in good shape ... and if we did not feel good about that from our own budget, we would not have been haphazard about a decision like this.”
In the end, Teague said, it was a decision about the future, “something we feel like will propel us.’’