Tubby Smith’s firing Monday can be taken as a measure of the University of Minnesota’s great ambitions for its men’s basketball program.
The uneven end of the Gophers’ season was characteristic of the whole. Friday night, the team was in command as it trounced an injury-hobbled UCLA by 20 points in its NCAA tournament opener.
On Sunday, a different team took the floor, one helpless in the first half to find the bucket or to cool off hot shooting hands from Florida. Things were better in the second half, but not enough for the team to avoid losing by 14 — and the game wasn’t really that close.
The whole season was just that kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde affair. The Gophers sizzled to a 15-1 start, rising into elite national rankings, then became a decided also-ran in the formidable Big Ten schedule. Even then, flashes of brilliance, like the toppling of Indiana, alternated with bumbling disappointments.
Consistency, and the mental preparation for every outing that creates it, are reasonably seen as among a coach’s core contributions — and their absence as a coaching failure. Real excellence is demonstrated by how a team performs on its worst days, not on its best days, and by that measure Smith’s program was moving in the wrong direction.
Add to the mix reports of waning enthusiasm among fans and donors alike, and it is hardly surprising that new athletic director Norwood Teague would seek a fresh start with a coach of his own choosing.
This new beginning comes with a hefty price tag — including a $2.5 million buyout for Smith, which grew by two-thirds when his contract was extended just last year. The arrangement will not quiet questions about the seeming casualness with which dollars are spent within the U’s athletics department.
That said, Minnesota yearns to rally behind an inspiring Gophers’ basketball program — one free of scandal (as Smith’s program has been, to his credit), but also one brimming with energy and determination to compete with the best.
By letting Smith go at this juncture, the U has established a demanding definition of success for Gopher basketball. Here’s hoping that challenge attracts a talent equal to the task.