Patrick Reusse: Gophers basketball has joined football's ages-old morass

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2012 - 1:49 AM

Neither team has produced a finish higher than a tie for fourth in the Big Ten over the past 15 seasons.

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The Gophers program has not taken off under Tubby Smith the way fans hoped when he was hired in 2007.

Photo: Carlos Osorio, AP

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Kentucky was 25-4 with first-year coach Tubby Smith in 1998 and was getting ready to play a February game. The coach's weekly radio show was underway and a caller offered this assurance:

"I ain't givin' up on you yet, Coach."

Kentucky won 10 in a row after that confidence boost from an old-line fan and captured the national championship.

Nine years later, the Wildcats had declined substantially, and Smith got out while there was still time, hiring himself as the new coach at Minnesota.

This was the equivalent of Bill Belichick leaving the New England Patriots to take on the rebuilding of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but most of us didn't pause to take a hard look at the situation.

Hey, Tubby had his chance to lead the No. 1 program in the history of college basketball for a decade, and he now was looking at a new challenge -- to lead a team with antiquated facilities that had settled comfortably into the nether reaches of the Big Ten standings.

There was the Gophers' conference championship and journey to the Final Four in 1997, both later vacated, and the team followed with these Big Ten finishes over the next decade: eighth, sixth, 10th, ninth, sixth, tied for sixth, tied for 10th, tied for fourth, 10th and ninth.

It was the résumé comparable to Northwestern, and that hasn't changed with Tubby: finishes of sixth, tied for seventh, sixth, ninth and tied for ninth.

We spend much time lamenting the condition of Gophers football, yet if you go back to 1997 there isn't a dime's worth of difference in Minnesota's two major programs.

These are the football finishes over the past 15 seasons: tied for ninth, tied for seventh, tied for fourth, tied for fifth, tied for 10th, seventh, tied for fourth, seventh, seventh, tied for sixth, 11th, tied for sixth, eighth, tied for ninth and, with two divisions in 2011, tied for 10th overall.

The football Gophers have three first-division finishes and five finishes of ninth or worse since the fall of 1997.

The basketball Gophers have one first-division finish and seven finishes of ninth or worse since the bittersweet journey to the 1997 Final Four.

To summarize: Over the past 30 seasons (15 apiece in football and basketball), the best Big Ten finish for a Minnesota team has been a tie for fourth.

It has to be facilities. It has to be the commitment from the administration. It has to be tough admissions standards.

Except: There is that new football stadium, which was the result of the prior administration using much of its political and fundraising clout to make it happen, and there have been as many athletes with substandard ACT scores admitted and kept eligible as you will find anywhere in the Big Ten.

The athletic programs around the country, Minnesota included, now have this great gambit of getting lads to be declared "learning disabled," and all it takes then is a modest show of interest from the athlete.

We are deluded here in Gopher Nation, in this opinion: that Tubby Smith came into a basketball program with a much stronger foundation than did Jerry Kill in football.

Go back to '97 and the vacated glory ... that's basically a generation, and one that has watched the Gophers stink equally in football and men's basketball.

You could make a case that Smith has a tougher task than Kill at the moment, since Tubby is working out of a dilapidated Barn and, only a couple of hundred yards away, Country Jer has that shiny new stadium to sell.

The other side of it is that three difference-makers who stay together can create a basketball foundation. Tubby's 33 percent of the way there with freshman Andre Hollins.

TubbyBall has been a large disappointment ... no doubt. He has to change something; maybe a key change on the staff, as Don Lucia did last summer to help put the pizzazz back in his hockey program.

Smith also has to bring the same fire in January and February that we see for a few hours in March at the Big Ten tournament. Mostly, he has to find an incredible competitor -- maybe a little-known guard from a JUCO in Nebraska -- to come in and own the last five minutes, rather than cower at them.

If I were to call Tubby's radio show to say, "I ain't givin' up on you yet, Coach," it would include a disclaimer, "... but I'm dang close."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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