Souhan: Tubby sends all the wrong messages

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 25, 2013 - 11:32 AM

Before the game, in the Gophers locker room, he looked uninspired.

During the game, as the Gophers suffered perhaps their most embarrassing loss during his tenure, he often sat still, shoulders slumped, on the sideline.

After the game, he ripped into his players, using the term "losers."

Less than a week after the Gophers hosted the biggest basketball game at Williams Arena in 35 years, Tubby Smith looked like he'd rather be ice fishing than coaching his most talented team. In a loss to Northwestern, his players, following six days of preparation, once again failed to solve Northwestern's famed 1-3-1 zone defense, which has led the Wildcats to exactly zero NCAA tournament appearances.

While Wednesday's loss was ugly and potentially devastating, what's more tiresome than shoddy play is Smith's insistence on letting everyone know that it's not his fault.

Not his fault that his team can't run a discernible offense. Not his fault that his fine point guard, Andre Hollins, who had rejuvenated the program over the previous 10 months, suddenly looks like he wishes he could go the Devoe Joseph route. Not his fault that his other fine guard, Austin Hollins, was left in the game with four fouls, leading to him fouling out with more than 11 minutes remaining.

Not his fault that his team has stopped playing hard and, by Smith's admission, has not practiced with any passion lately. Not his fault that another "Slumping Smith Senior," Rodney Williams, has regressed during his last year on campus. Not his fault that a team that looked deep two months ago now has trouble finding a reliable sixth or seventh man.

Smith bashed his players after they lost to a superior Michigan team. He bashed them again Wednesday.

To recap: The only millionaire employee of the basketball program, the guy who decides style of play, in-game strategy, playing time, whom to recruit, how to practice, and how to motivate his players wants you to know that losing is the fault of his unpaid 20-somethings.

Smith has sought scapegoats before, and it's interesting that he does so most often immediately after games, when he seems tired, even depressed. He once followed an ugly loss by complaining that his players have to walk through the cold to practice at Williams Arena.

For all of the staged interviews in sport, truth most often emerges when there isn't a podium in sight. The key moment of the Gophers' once-promising season occurred after Smith ripped his players following the Michigan loss. Williams wrote on Twitter to his fellow starters that the players had been thrown, to paraphrase, way under the bus.

Any of these events in isolation wouldn't necessarily be cause for concern. Coaches are allowed to critique their players publicly. Players occasionally say things they may regret. In the context of Smith's tenure at the U, these events, combined with his players' Walking Dead body language and Smith's apparent disgust, points to continued dysfunction in a program that has underachieved and chased off players since Smith arrived.

Smith's record in the Big Ten is 41-55. His current team, thought to be capable of contending for a title, is 3-3 in the conference, taking a three-game losing streak to Wisconsin on Saturday, where the Gophers will face a team that, under Bo Ryan, annually plays with the intelligence and grit that make Gophers fans yearn for a clean Clem Haskins.

There was a telling moment on the Big Ten Network on Wednesday night. The network places cameras in the locker room to capture the coaches' pregame speeches. Often, the showmanship is so staged it's embarrassing for everyone involved. Coaches tend to channel Al Pacino in "Any Given Sunday."

Smith channeled a librarian. He stood at a whiteboard, quietly noting points of emphasis. In closing, he told his players to "play with chemistry," in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

Too often since he left Kentucky Smith has seemed to be going through the motions, more interested in preserving his legacy than advancing it. Is it surprising that his players have adopted the same jaded passivity?

The art of coaching is getting the most out of your players, whether that means winning a title or stealing a few improbable victories. Smith seems more interested in the art of spin-doctoring, more interested in assigning blame after losses than coaching in a way that would prevent them.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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