Lowest common denominator at U? Maturi

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2011 - 6:54 AM

The latest updates on Tubby Smith and Don Lucia confirm what we already knew: the Gophers athletic department lacks any standards.

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Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune file

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On Dec. 5, Gopherdom exploded with outrage at the hiring of Jerry Kill as Minnesota's new football coach.

After one charming news conference and a winter in which he has shrewdly channeled neither Tim Brewster nor Charlie Sheen, Kill has become the most popular coach of a revenue sport on campus. In the land of the unsighted, the one-eyed man is king.

Kill not only graduated from a small school to a Big Ten program with sumptuous facilities, he also inherited the ideal situation for a coach unproven in a major conference: He replaced Brewster, which is like winning the lottery and being exempted from taxes.

Kill has one other advantage in his new job: He has yet to coach a game, putting him far ahead of those who have failed.

In terms of current and former revenue sports, the Gophers athletic department resides at an all-time low.

Tubby Smith, so recently considered a savior, coached a team that lost 10 of its last 11 games, fell from 13th in the nation to unranked and was shunned by the lowly NIT.

Don Lucia, so recently king of the college hockey world, watched his team get swept at home by Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.

In athletic departments with standards and leadership, Smith and Lucia would be fearing for their jobs.

In Gopherdom, both have been offered contract extensions.

Smith did the worst coaching job in the Big Ten this season. Lucia has done the unthinkable: Turn Gophers hockey from a national power to a regional joke.

Considering that Brewster's tenure devastated the football program and that Pam Borton has guided women's basketball toward the bottom of the Big Ten, we can find one common denominator for Gophers mediocrity: athletic director Joel Maturi, who has made us yearn for the golden era of Golden Gophers athletics.

Maturi became the athletic director at the U in 2002, coinciding with what we should now recognize as a high-water mark.

In the fall of 2003, Glen Mason's football team went 10-3, Dan Monson's basketball team was a year away from beginning a run to the NCAA tournament, Lucia was coming off a second consecutive national title and Borton's women were headed to the Final Four.

Maturi served as a fine cheerleader for those teams ... and has continued to cheer, pat backs and attend cross-country meets as his current and former revenue sports have collapsed.

Considering that Monson essentially fired himself in embarrassment when his team stopped playing for him, and that Smith's agent orchestrated the deal that landed him in Minnesota, Maturi has made one dramatic, independent move as an athletic director: Firing Mason and hiring Brewster.

In architectural terms, this proved to be the equivalent of moving from a comfortable suburban family home into a cardboard box under the freeway.

An athletic department with standards would be questioning its willingness to continue paying Smith about $2 million a year, not begging him to sign a contract extension that will reward him with a raise.

An athletic department with standards would be questioning whether Lucia deserves to remain on the job.

Maybe Smith is too old and comfortable to fight the recruiting battles required of an elite coach, or to adapt quickly in a cutthroat business.

Maybe Lucia's health scares have robbed him of the fire that made him the best coach in college hockey not so long ago.

Humans change. Except for Maturi. He's been consistent.

He arrived at the U when the Gophers athletic department was successful. Gopherdom has been hurtling downhill ever since, and instead of slamming brakes or seizing the wheel, Gentleman Joel has stared out the windshield at the fluffy clouds in the distance. One of them looks just like a unicorn.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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