Men's basketball: Monson out; Gophers regroup

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2006 - 6:11 AM

With the Gophers men's basketball team going downhill, coach Dan Monson accepts a buyout package, and assistant Jim Molinari takes over on an interim basis.

Dan Monson was an optimist on Oct. 26 when the Minnesota men's basketball coach talked glowingly about the future of the Gophers before the start of the 2006-07 season.

He maintained that the program was in the best shape it had been in the eight years since it was gutted by an academic fraud scandal under then-coach Clem Haskins.

Thursday -- only 35 days later and seven games into the season -- Monson accepted a buyout package worth more than $1.3 million, ending his tenure as Gophers coach. The Gophers have a 2-5 record, including five consecutive losses. Assistant coach Jim Molinari will serve as interim coach the rest of the season.

After an era in which games drew near-capacity crowds to Williams Arena, attendance has slipped under Monson, especially in recent years. The Gophers' home average in 2005-06 was 11,536, one of their lowest totals since 1970.

Men's basketball has long been a crucial moneymaker for the University of Minnesota athletic department, with profits used to help the school's nonrevenue programs.

Athletic Director Joel Maturi would not say what impact attendance played in the decision, saying only, "It's a situation where I do believe the program is not in the position that we want it to be."

Monson was the coach at Gonzaga before taking the Minnesota job. He inherited a program saddled with NCAA sanctions, including recruiting restrictions and scholarship reductions because of the academic scandal. Monson has routinely been credited with cleaning up the program's image and improving the program's academic standing.

But in the end, the results on the court weren't enough to allow Monson to retain his job. He earned more than $5 million in total salary, including shoe contract money, in his seven full seasons at Minnesota.

"I didn't accomplish what I wanted to [on] the court, but I came here to restore respect in other areas," Monson said at Thursday's news conference. "I feel like I did what I was asked to come here to do, and with that I have no apologies for where the program is. I think it is a program with great respect off the court. ... It's time for somebody else to make the next step and that's to have more success on the court."

Doomed by a slow start

Maturi had permission from university President Robert Bruininks to fire Monson in March after the Gophers finished 10th in the Big Ten. There was little question that the Gophers would have to show improvement this season for him to keep his job.

But an exhibition loss to Division II Winona State foreshadowed the final stretch of Monson's tenure when the Gophers lost five games in nine days. Included in that stretch were losses to Marist, Southern Illinois and Montana, all schools with a lower athletic profile than Big Ten member Minnesota.

Wednesday's blowout loss to Clemson prompted a Thursday morning meeting between Maturi and Monson during which a decision was made that a change was needed.

"We had hoped that the program would make a move in the right direction after we made the decision that Dan was going to continue as our basketball coach," Maturi said. "We just felt as if it was best to accept Dan's resignation at this time."

Maturi and Monson met with players Thursday afternoon. The meeting was described as emotional.

"They have a lot of games left to play, we're only seven games into a season and you know, quite frankly, I told them that if they'd played a little better we wouldn't have had this meeting," Maturi said. "We're all a little bit at fault."

Neither Molinari nor Gophers players were made available to reporters. Larry McKenzie, the former Minneapolis Henry High School coach and father of Gophers guard Lawrence McKenzie, said his son had mixed emotions.

"On the one hand, he had high expectations and they let coach Monson down," Larry McKenzie said. "They knew what they were facing and feel they let coach down. But it also allows this team to regroup and get a fresh start."

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