Before we have even had a chance to turn our calendars, 1500 ESPN host Patrick Reusse's 2011 "Turkey of the Year" award already has a winner. With all due respect to James Sheppard, Adam Kelly, Don Lucia, Devoe Joseph, Zygi Wilf, Scott Ullger, and KFAN (what happened to that Paul Chryst hiring?), the winner is a no-brainer.
It's Joel Maturi.
Sunday night, while referencing his latest football hire, Maturi said "We cast a wide net in this search, but the name we kept coming back to was Jerry Kill." Really?? This from the same guy who said "We're out here to find a Tubby Smith . . . We're out here to find somebody that people can recognize, people have confidence in, and are going to bring instant credibility and notoriety to the football program." Why can't Maturi just keep it real? San Diego State's Brady Hoke said no, and so did others. The question then becomes, how far down the list was Kill?
On Monday morning at 7 a.m., when Maturi addressed the team, he said, "If you've done your homework, you'll know that this guy has won at every place he's been." Please, not the homework line again, especially after the Tim Brewster fiasco. Maturi didn't do his homework then, so what makes us believe he did his homework this time?
This is not an indictment on Kill, who did the exact same thing anyone in his position would have done. Although, he'll have to deal with constant comparisons of "What would Mike Leach have done with this team?" Kill's resume is good despite a 2-12 record vs. FBS teams that finished above .500 in the last three years (2-13 if Illinois wins its bowl game). Also, he is 0-2 in bowl games and, while with FCS Southern Illinois, went 4-5 in playoff appearances -- never making it to the championship game. He also lost on Friday night as a 17-point favorite in the Mid-American Conference championship game to Miami (Ohio). For a chance to triple his salary and coach in the Big 10, it's easy to see why he said yes. Heck, he didn't have an indoor practice facility at Northern Illinois.
Northern Illinois improved in many areas under Kill's watch. Their penalty numbers went down in each of his three years, and this year finished in the top-10 in the FBS. That is good discipline. They have a plus-10 in turnover margin this year, 18th in the FBS, second in the MAC. Those who know him love him. He's the opposite of Tim Brewster. In other words, there won't be any Rose Bowl turf in the football complex, and he'll limit his use of "tremendous." He's a hard-nosed football guy, who relies on out-scheming the opponent.
I do worry about his health, though, especially when he'll have to deal with Sid Hartman on a regular basis. In 2005, he was treated for kidney cancer (best win of his career), and in September he collapsed at his home following complications from gall bladder surgery. According to the Chicago Sun Times, his father passed away at age 66 from pancreatic cancer.
But Kill deserves a shot. With home games against Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska next year, he has a chance of winning over a negative fan base immediately.
Maturi? He's had his chance. In some ways, the harsh treatment of him may not be fair. It's the Kevin McHale syndrome. Once you screw up long enough, nothing can be accepted. But that's big-time athletics. In October, a high-profile booster destroyed Maturi in a phone conversation. At the time, I thought it was a bit harsh, but maybe he was right. I'll give Maturi one thing: on the day he fired Brewster, he was right when he said, "You're not following Vince Lombardi here."
The same will be said when Maturi's successor is hired.
"We haven't really stepped up in big games. That's why you go out and recruit better players. And hopefully, we'll get that in the future."
That was Gophers head coach Tubby Smith, following his team's defeat to a 12-loss Michigan team at "The Barn" on Thursday.
In journalism, a profession in which we often wonder if people are being truthful, Smith’s honesty is welcomed. And he is right. Not even John Wooden could win with the collection of “talent” on this year’s Gophers squad. But whose fault is that? I have yet to hear Smith accept responsibility.
Even without Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, at the start of the season, the Gophers had their top-nine scorers back from last year’s NCAA tournament team. And this year’s schedule is easier (they don't play Wisconsin or Illinois twice plus the non-conference portion was laughable). Unless they win out – which has about the same chance of happening as Gophers football coach Tim Brewster agreeing to do a radio interview with Patrick Reusse on ESPN 1500 -- they will be NIT bound. There could be a great game at "The Barn" in mid-March: North Carolina, the defending champs, versus the Gophers.
Al Nolen is clearly missed -- way more than anyone could have guessed -- but aren't Smith and his staff supposed to make sure that Nolen is showing up for class and putting in the necessary effort?
Unfortunately, a better recruiting class is not coming in next year. The Gophers have verbal commitments from guard Austin Hollins and center Elliott Eliason. The experts view both as decent players, but certainly not program-changers. They are in on Devoe Joseph's brother, Cory, a McDonald's All-American, but so are Texas, Villanova, and UConn. Joseph’s best friend is on his way to Texas, so it is difficult envisioning him as a Gopher. Not a surprise because, if you talk to any diehard Kentucky fan, they will tell you that Smith is not known for recruiting.
Any elite high school player can turn on a Gopher game and see that Smith makes far too many substitutions. Great players likely want to be guaranteed at least 33 minutes per game. They also want to see good offensive flow. The Gophers generally score points as a result of their pressure defense. They struggle in half-court sets. Movement is limited compared to most teams. Far too often, there seems to be mass confusion until Lawrence Westbrook tries to beat his guy one-on-one as the shot clock winds down.
As we enter the final seven regular season games of Smith's third-year, player development does not appear to be a real strength. Is he becoming Don Lucia-like? A case can be made that Joseph, Westbrook, Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson, Devron Bostick, and Paul Carter all have failed to improve this season.
As I have previously mentioned, Smith should be in the Hall of Fame right now, but will his iconic touch ever reach the Gophers?
Smith's name came up last offseason for the Virginia and Arizona jobs. Presumably, his name will come up again this year for openings in the ACC (think North Carolina State) and SEC. Will Smith entertain the thought of leaving? Could he view the Wolfpack job as far less of a dire situation than the Gophers' job?
There are far more questions than answers right now surrounding what is at many times the third-most popular team in town.