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."

The Gophers made a surprising run to the NCAA tournament in 2005 -- the only time the program reached the tournament under Monson. But that season was sandwiched by two 10th-place Big Ten finishes. Those finishes prompted criticisms over Monson's ability to recruit top-flight players.

"After you lose [momentum], it's hard to get the ball going in the other direction," said Monson, who leaves Minnesota with a 118-106 record and a 44-68 Big Ten record. "If the stigma of your program isn't going in the right direction, it's a really tough uphill climb."

As the Gophers struggled this season, it became increasingly clear within the college coaching community that Monson's days were numbered.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo spoke with Monson during the day Wednesday. "He said he hoped the AD [Maturi] would keep him the year and see what he could do," Izzo said. "But I could tell he was doubtful of that."

Said Iowa coach Steve Alford: "I think he is a phenomenal coach, a great friend of mine, a great person. It's just one of those sad days in the profession when you see a colleague lose his job."

Maturi said "anybody who's interested in the job would be a candidate" to become coach for 2006-07. He would not detail what he will look for in the next coach, but he will have several months to scout candidates.

University alumni are likely to push for Detroit Pistons head coach Flip Saunders, but the former Gophers player and Timberwolves coach would have to take a significant pay cut and said Thursday he wasn't interested in the job. Former college coaches Steve Lavin and Rick Majerus also could be in the mix, and the list of hot young coaches includes Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Rob Jeter, Southern Illinois' Chris Lowry, Butler's Todd Lickliter and Wichita State's Mark Turgeon.

Monson said he "absolutely" wants to coach again, although accepting what happened on the court was difficult Thursday.

"The toughest thing would be to just come to the realization that, you know, somebody else might have more success at going to the next level with this," Monson said.

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