CHICAGO - Through a 33-year coaching career, Gophers coach Tubby Smith has learned to never utter the phrase, "Things can't get worse."
They always can, of course.
Still, when Smith's son, Gophers assistant coach Saul Smith, was arrested for drunken driving the morning after the coach's star player, Trevor Mbakwe, wrapped up a probation violation hearing triggered by the same offense, the veteran coach couldn't help but at least think the forbidden phrase.
This didn't happen, Smith said Thursday at Big Ten media day regarding what he thought immediately after finding out about his son's charge. What else could go wrong?
"It couldn't have been worse," Smith said of the timing. "Trevor just got back from Florida Saturday morning. He hadn't even gotten back yet. ... I was just so disappointed. What can you say? What can you do? There's nothing you can do ... It's just like the wind knocked you off your feet."
Chorus of criticism
In the span of a week, the hype of a promising Gophers season was completely blanketed by talk of legal issues. News of Mbakwe's drunken driving arrest and probation violation was first reported at Gophers media day Oct. 12, and it monopolized the news cycle until his hearing in Florida. Right after his case was settled, Saul Smith was arrested.
The side-by-side cases have provided plenty of opportunity for criticism from Gophers fans, who don't understand why Mbakwe -- who also has been on probation for felony battery and violating a restraining order -- is with the team to start the year, while Saul Smith, a first-time offender, isn't. Smith said his son is expected to be a role model for the players and thus is assessed in a different way.
The coach suspended Mbakwe from team activities for an undisclosed length of time after Mbakwe's July drunken-driving arrest. But while Mbakwe is expected to play in Minnesota's first exhibition game Thursday, Saul Smith has been put on unpaid, administrative leave -- although Tubby Smith did say he expects him to be coaching at some point this season. Saul Smith's salary is $91,755 a year, according to the U of M.
"It's a higher standard," said Smith, who allowed athletic director Norwood Teague to lead the decision-making process on Saul Smith's punishment because he is "a parent first." Teague said Monday he was not sure whether Smith will remain suspended until his Dec. 3 court date, though he reiterated the suspension is "indefinite." He said the university is still evaluating the situation.
Mbakwe's punishment was previously kept confidential, but Smith on Thursday said it involved requiring the forward to do community service, attend Alcoholics Anonymous and see a psychologist. Those initiatives, which Smith said were necessary for Mbakwe to get reinstated with the team, greatly helped Mbakwe in court last week, with the judge agreeing to two additional years of probation rather than jail time.
"Can you imagine if he hadn't done anything? He would be in jail, probably," Smith said.
Smith's empathy and willingness to work with Mbakwe despite his legal problems comes from his core belief that Mbakwe, despite his mistakes, is well-intentioned.
"Is he a good person? Yeah, he's a good person. Is he a man of character? Yeah, he's a man of character. But he made a mistake," Smith said. "Lord knows the things I've done that, thank God, were never publicized."
Fellow forward Rodney Williams said the team, which is fighting the perception that the legal battles are an on-court distraction, agrees wholeheartedly.
"We all know the kind of guy Trevor is, and we're behind him 100 percent," Williams said.
Even so, Smith knows the criticism will come. In 33 years, he's developed the belief that he needs to stick to his gut in handling such issues.
"I didn't last all these years in this business doing stupid stuff," he said. "I lasted this long because I do the right things by people. And I let my record speak for myself. ... People are going to think what they think."