Hartman: U hasn't had much success hiring big-time coaches

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2013 - 10:45 PM
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Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith spoke with point guard Andre Hollins during Sunday's game against Florida in the third round of the NCAA basketball tournament. Smith was fired on Monday.

Photo: Rodolfo Gonzalez, Special to the Star Tribune

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It was sad the way Tubby Smith was notified of his firing Monday.

Smith’s office phone had rung off the hook around noon Monday with calls that CBSSports.com was reporting he was fired. Smith thought it was just a false report.

Having spent a lot of time with Smith, I know the last thing he thought was that he was going to be fired. That’s one reason I was confident it would not happen.

But early in the afternoon, Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague and associate AD Dave Benedict marched into Smith’s office with the news that he was no longer coach, and this meant the school had to pay him a $2.5 million buyout to add to all of the other money they owe in buyouts to past coaches. It was Teague who finalized the new contract with Smith last summer.

About how Smith accepted the news, Teague said: “He was very gracious. I could see the disappointment in his eyes. It was hard to tell Tubby [news like that]. He’s a great human being. I don’t think he was totally surprised. But he was very gracious, and that did not surprise me, because of the way that he conducts himself and the person that he is.”

The word from insiders at the Bierman Building was that basketball gate receipts and corporate support had gone down the past two years, and that if the university had retained Smith, that revenue would continue to slide.

Yes, I was wrong when I continued to write that he won’t be fired. In my column Monday, I outlined several reasons why it wouldn’t be good move to fire Smith now, and instead see how he does in a rebuilding year.

And I still believe removing Smith will turn out to be a bad move unless a big-time coach can be hired, something Gophers athletic directors have not been able to do in either basketball and football for some time. Even Smith, a national championship-winning coach at Kentucky, just fell in their lap in 2007.

The athletic department’s Big Three of Teague, Benedict and Mike Ellis all came from Virginia Commonwealth and watched Smith operate one season as Gophers coach before deciding he couldn’t do the job. They must have thought Smith was pretty good when the team started the season 15-1. Had the Gophers defeated Florida in the NCAA tournament on Sunday, no doubt Smith would not have been dismissed.

It was no secret that Ellis, who ran the VCU basketball program, wasn’t a Smith booster.

And no doubt Ellis, who made all of the Gophers road trips, is very close to VCU coach Shaka Smart — who has to be a leading candidate for the job and might already have agreed to move here.

Smart coached his Rams to the Final Four two years ago and lost to Michigan in the round of 32 in this year’s tournament.

Smart turned down a $3 million-a-year contract to coach at Illinois last year, so Teague might ask the boosters to contribute to Smart’s contract here.

The word is that Smart might be more interested in this job than the UCLA one, since he knows the people here.

No doubt Teague could convince Smart that some things will be done to remodel Williams Arena, a building that has tradition but doesn’t sell well to recruits who visit it; and also that Teague will raise the money to build a practice facility and that the budget will be raised. Smart might also be convinced that even though he will get a late start, he would be able to recruit the great crop of 2014 local recruits and get them to play for the Gophers.

Well if Smart isn’t available, and even if he is, a great choice would be Flip Saunders, who turned down the job before Smith was hired because he was still employed in the NBA.

The big-time boosters probably would welcome Saunders before anybody else, and his presence would make it easier to raise money because of his popularity.

Teague was quoted at the news conference as saying, “We will be looking locally and nationally for a coach.” And Benedict did say they plan to talk to Saunders.

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