Patrick Reusse: Haskins endorses U for Smith

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2007 - 11:16 PM

Clem Haskins was on a cell phone late Thursday afternoon and simultaneously attempting to get his herd of cattle to move through a gate.

"This is my last job of the day and these cattle are being stubborn," he said.

Haskins has been a full-time farmer back home in Campbellsville, Ky., since leaving his post as the Gophers basketball coach under an unhappy circumstance in June 1999.

Dan Monson was Haskins' replacement. In his eighth season, he managed to assemble the worst team ever witnessed by a living Gophers partisan.

Monson was fired after seven games. Jim Molinari served the rest of the sentence as the interim coach of this miserable collection. The search for a new coach started when the 9-22 season ended with a 40-point offensive explosion against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament.

Meanwhile, Kentucky was being bounced in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, putting its record at 21-11. That ratio of victory to defeat causes trauma with a fan base that considers annual SEC titles and deep runs in the NCAA tournament a birthright.

The complaints against Smith were at an all-time high two weeks ago. If he wanted to find a soft landing, the lone opening in a major conference was Minnesota's.

There were conversations after the SEC tournament between Gophers officials and Mark Coyle, a Kentucky associate athletic director who worked at Minnesota from 2002 to 2004.

After those conversations, the Gophers were optimistic enough about being able to hire Smith that university president Robert Bruininks started sounding out regents on paying a huge salary for a basketball coach.

A week ago, Kentucky beat Villanova in an NCAA tournament opener, then was thrashed on Sunday by Kansas. By then, the rumors were that Smith was being ordered to fire most of his coaching staff.

Tubby made a call to Haskins, a friend since in the early '80s.

"We met when Tubby was an assistant at [Virginia Commonwealth], and his wife was working at Phillip Morris with my brother," Haskins said. "He did call me and ask about Minnesota. I gave the university and the people [in the state] the highest review I could give.

"Minnesota is getting a class coach and an even a classier person. He averaged 26 wins a season -- 26! -- at Kentucky. Who could ask for any more than that?"

Clem then answered his question: "What the Kentucky people don't understand is that the days when you can dominate every year are over. Even Duke had a bad year.

"If you were a great basketball school, you used to be able to go into Florida or Texas and get the best players. Today, great players want to stay home."

Smith is the third coach from Kentucky to be hired by the Gophers since 1971. Cal Luther was hired from Murray State that spring, changed his mind the next day and went home. Bill Musselman replaced him and quickly made Williams Arena the liveliest venue in the Twin Cities.

Haskins came in from Western Kentucky for the 1986-87 season and maintained that excitement for most of his 13 years. Several banners he won -- including the 1997 Big Ten title and the berth in the Final Four -- have been removed from the Barn. The Gophers' media guide contends Haskins' record was 0-0 for his final six seasons because of the academic fraud scandal.

"You can take away the banners, and take away the victories, but what no one can have is the memories," Haskins said. "Those are what I'm holding on to from Minnesota.

"People talk about how tough the job is at Kentucky. All jobs are tough. Come on, now ... Minnesota is no cakewalk.

"I don't care what the record says, I set a high standard my last number of years at Minnesota. Those fans in Williams Arena remember that, and they want to win as much as the fans in Rupp Arena.

"Tubby gave them plenty of wins -- he was 76-11 at one time in the SEC; 76-11, for goodness sakes. Now, Minnesota has him, and what I say is, 'Congratulations to the Gophers.' "

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