Norwood Teague had been on the job for nine months as the Gophers athletic director when he fired Tubby Smith as men’s basketball coach on March 25, 2013. This came one day after Florida eliminated the Gophers 78-64 in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32.
Smith had been hired March 22, 2007, in a move where the parties were doing one another a favor: The Gophers were offering Tubby an escape route from the heat he was taking at Kentucky, and Smith, about to turn 56, was giving then-athletic director Joel Maturi a coach with credibility.
By Year 6, Gophers followers wanted more than Tubby was offering, and even the first NCAA tournament victory since 1997 — over UCLA and Shabazz Muhammad — could not save him in Teague’s mind.
A week later, Teague and his assistant AD, Mike Ellis, had received a handful of turndowns. They even offered the job to Gophers alum Flip Saunders, but with some caveats; plus, Flip was about to be hired by the Timberwolves as president of basketball operations.
The last Teague turndown came from Andy Enfield, the coach who had created “Dunk City” at Florida Gulf Coast and had taken the Eagles to the Sweet Sixteen (where it lost to Florida).
Legend has it that Teague, now desperate, called Florida coach Billy Donovan — an acquaintance — and asked, “Who do you got for me?” And Donovan’s response was that Norwood might want to talk to Richard Pitino, the kid who had coached that one season at Florida International.
On April 3, 2013, Pitino was introduced as Gophers coach. He was 30 at the time, and the famous last name served him well in the initial reception from the sporting public.
On Tuesday night, Pitino, now a grizzled 36, took a bad 82-67 loss with a second-half collapse vs. Maryland at Williams Arena. Meantime, 800 miles to the south, the Timberwolves were unveiling a new coach with an interim title: Ryan Saunders, 32 and Flip’s son, against Oklahoma City.
And there was a pregame endorsement from none other than Donovan, now in his fourth season as the Thunder coach: “Ryan will do a great job. Obviously, he comes from a great pedigree with his dad. And he was around Thibs. So, I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”
Flip coached all or part of 17 seasons in the NBA and was running the Timberwolves’ basketball operation and coaching when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 60 right before the start of the 2015-16 season.
Ryan was a young coach on the bench for his dad with the Wolves in 2015-16, and in Washington before that, and he stayed on the Wolves staff when Tom Thibodeau took over in 2016-17.
You could suggest that Ryan’s instant favorability with the public is based on what Richard Pitino had going for him six years ago — a famous surname in the coaching business — but it’s substantially more than that.
The public had developed a virulent dislike for Thibodeau. It was amazing in this regard: Local sports fans with no interest in the NBA (which is a substantial majority) were taking the time to let you know of their disdain for Thibodeau.
Thibs was 58 when hired, but not grandfatherly like Tubby. He had a low bark of a voice that carried through the telecasts. People who had never watched a Timberwolves telecast or attended a game somehow managed to complain about Thibs’ constant and adjective-filled bark … quite a phenomenon.
Thibodeau was able to maintain his critics even as the Wolves went from 31 wins to 47 in his second season and ended a 13-season playoff drought. And then the Jimmy Butler situation blew up this fall, and the firing was inevitable.
The surprise was that it came after two consecutive blowout victories, as was the surprise of Tubby being fired after an NCAA tournament win. Donovan was a conduit for young Pitino getting here, and the losing coach for young Saunders’ debut.
The Timberwolves came up with a raucous effort in support of the popular kid on the sideline and a 119-117 victory. It was another of those nights when Andrew Wiggins couldn’t be stopped (there were a couple of those in Thibs’ 2½ seasons, right?).
And now, soon will come reality.
Pitino is 33-61 in the Big Ten as he’s gone from being the fresh face of hope to a coach greatly in need of a second visit to the NCAA tournament. And Saunders has 41 games — exactly a half-season — to see if he can get such effort out of the Wolves with frequency.
Opening night of the Fresh Start was fun for all … and only a splash of color in the Pollockian grind of an NBA schedule.