AUSTIN, TEXAS – Tubby Smith rose from his seat with 15 seconds left on the scoreboard and exhaled, his face expressionless.
A few minutes later, Smith looked into the stands during a radio interview and spotted his wife, Donna, standing in the front row. He nodded and gave a quick smile.
Smith’s 22nd season as a college basketball coach came to an end with a 78-64 loss to the Florida Gators in the NCAA tournament. Left unanswered, for now, is whether this was Smith’s last game on the Gophers sideline.
A season of underachievement ended with the disappointment of a double-digit loss in the second game of the tournament. The Gophers showed some fight in the second half against the Gators, but expectations for this team way back in November and December surpassed this finality.
The focus now shifts toward whether Smith’s tenure in Minnesota will continue next season. Athletic Director Norwood Teague has remained in the background in recent weeks, presumably to avoid being approached by reporters in search of answers that he couldn’t provide without knowing how the season would play out. Teague wasn’t even in attendance Sunday night; he returned home to watch the Gophers women’s hockey team win the NCAA title.
Asked during his postgame news conference if he has any indication that his job is in jeopardy, Smith said, “No.”
Smith expounded on that answer in a brief interview as he walked down a tunnel inside the Erwin Center. I asked Smith if he needs to sit down with Teague to figure out where he stands with his new boss.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “Why would I need [that]? I just need to find out where we’re going with the program, how we’re going to grow the program. We’ll sit down like we normally do with any AD at the end of the season and see what we need to change, see where we need to improve, where we need help.”
Asked if he would consider changes to his staff, Smith said he evaluates every facet of the program after each season, but then he defended his record.
“When I think about what we’ve been able to accomplish in our six years here, it’s nothing to sneeze at,” he said. “We know we had a tough run here. But otherwise we feel pretty good about things. We’ve got to grow the program. We’ve got to do the things you have to do to compete with everybody else. That’s for certain.”
The general mood around the program was that the Gophers needed two wins in the tournament for Smith to feel safe. That’s not to suggest Teague would base his decision solely off two games. But coaches don’t typically lose their job after taking their team to the Sweet 16.
Teague’s policy is to wait until after the season to evaluate any program publicly, but now he must address Smith’s situation in the next few days. It serves no purpose to have this cloud hanging over the program any longer than necessary.
Teague and Mike Ellis, his senior associate athletic director, are smart basketball people. They’re hell-bent on elevating this program’s stature and profile. Smith’s $2.5 million buyout is hefty, but he looks tired right now. The whole program looks that way. It needs some life and fresh energy.
It’s hard not to view the totality of the season as underwhelming after the Gophers started 15-1 and climbed into the top 10. They raised expectations and left the impression that this season would be different. That this team could make some noise in March.
But the season bottomed out during a 5-11 stretch and the fan base grew increasingly frustrated with Smith. A victory over UCLA in the tournament opener failed to provide the necessary spark for the Gophers to salvage their season.
There was no mystery in dissecting what went wrong Sunday night. The Gators simply are a better team. They have better athletes, better talent and a better coach.
The Gophers needed to play their best to advance. They didn’t come close to that, especially in the first half when they dug themselves a 23-point hole. Andre Hollins’ hot shooting made things interesting in the second half, but the Gophers’ inconsistency cost them one final time.
Smith ended his news conference by addressing his team’s future. Afterward, I asked Smith if he still feels like he has support here.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” he said.
And then he headed toward his locker room.