The first Big Ten loss in men’s basketball for the 2012-13 Gophers came on Jan. 12 at No. 5 Indiana. Tubby Smith’s club hung tough before losing 88-81 and dropped only one spot, to No. 9, in the next week’s Associated Press poll.
And then came six more losses in nine games, including five consecutive games in which the Gophers did not exceed 53 points in regulation.
The ugliness ended on Feb. 26 with a 77-73 victory over an Indiana team that had ascended to the No. 1 ranking. There was a capacity crowd of 14,625 in the Barn and the students stormed the elevated floor.
The victory basically assured the Gophers a place in the NCAA tournament and caused many of us to suggest that it had saved Smith’s job. Athletic director Norwood Teague and his basketball man, Mike Ellis, didn’t see it that way, and they were the ones who counted.
Smith’s first NCAA victory in six years at Minnesota wasn’t enough to save him; he was gone within hours of the round-of-32 loss to Florida on March 24.
One side effect of the decision to fire Smith seemed to be this: It enabled Pam Borton to save her job as the women’s basketball coach after a fourth consecutive lousy season for the Gophers.
Smith went a feeble 29-43 (.403) in conference play starting with the 2009-10 season. Borton went 23-43 (.348) in those four Big Ten seasons.
The announced average attendances for the Gophers home games went from 10,794 (all games) and 11,770 (Big Ten) in 2006-07, the season before Smith’s arrival, to 12,580 and 13,970 in 2012-13.
The announced average attendance for Borton’s team in all games at Williams Arena went from 6,596 to 3,277 over that same period of time.
Smith was fired, justifiably. Borton stayed, because an AD who had been on the job for 10 months could not start off dealing with basketball coaches like Tony Montana dealt with rivals in “Scarface.”
So far in 2013-14, Borton has not taken advantage of her reprieve, even as junior Rachel Banham continues on a path that will put her among the all-time greats in the Gophers’ four decades of women’s basketball.
The Gophers are 2-5 in the Big Ten after accepting an 83-53 humiliation on Sunday at Penn State. They are home against Iowa on Wednesday night, and the winning needs to start immediately.
Perhaps Banham can ignite a Gophers’ run to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. That alone would not figure to save Borton. One NCAA victory didn’t save Smith last year, and one probably wouldn’t do it for Borton with a recent history worse than was Tubby’s, both in record and in deterioration of interest in the program.
Everything is relative, of course, with men’s basketball as a huge moneymaker for the athletic program, and women’s basketball shy of break-even in the best of times. Yet, the decline of interest in Borton’s team from being extra-special a decade ago, to satisfactory a half-decade ago, to events for friends, relatives and youth leagues can’t be tolerated by an athletic director.
Teague said in a brief conversation Tuesday that he remained hopeful of a turnaround for a Gophers team that can draw on the talents of the dynamic Banham and the impressive freshman center, Amanda Zahui B., among others.
“I’m going to stay level-headed and let this play out,” Teague said. “We should have a good women’s basketball program at Minnesota.”
It cost the athletic department $2.5 million to buy out Smith’s contract. A buy out for Borton has been estimated at $350,000.
Teague started leaning toward a change with Smith during that five-game, mid-conference stretch of offensive ineptitude. The concrete was set on the decision during the Gophers’ abomination of a 51-49 loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
On Tuesday, Teague was asked what would’ve occurred with Tubby if the Gophers had beaten Florida and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen a year ago. Quietly, with no bluster, Teague said:
“One more win wouldn’t have changed the decision.”
Teague is staying level-headed on Borton, so I’m offering this as an opinion with no input from the athletic director:
Borton would be able to save her job with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen — and that’s also what it is going to take.