University booster: 'Nobody is happy' about basketball problems

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 23, 2012 - 6:50 AM

Athletic director, boosters are concerned about how the recent arrests will affect the basketball program's image.

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Minnesota assistant coach Saul Smith talked to guard Julian Welch during a game last year. Smith is on indefinite leave after a weekend arrest on suspicion of drunken driving.

Photo: Carlos Osorio, Associated Press

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When Paul Presthus -- head of membership for the Gophers men's basketball team's Golden Dunkers booster club -- has talked with other boosters lately, the conversation hasn't been about high expectations, the return of Trevor Mbakwe or raising money for a practice facility. Instead, he said, the recent legal battles of Mbakwe, and now assistant Saul Smith, dominate much of the discussion.

"I've already had calls and conversations with various people who have said it's going to impact what they do or don't do," Presthus said. "Nobody is happy about this. They feel bad, but they're very frustrated, too."

That frustration was echoed by Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague on Monday, who recognizes the image of the program and the school have taken a hit. He told media members Monday that he would not rule out firing Smith, who is on unpaid leave after being arrested early Saturday morning for drunken driving.

"We want a culture of behavior, a culture of being model citizens," Teague said. "We're a front porch to the university in a lot of different ways. We just can't have behavior like that. It's just not good for anyone. It's embarrassing, and I won't tolerate it."

Right now, not tolerating it means that Minnesota has placed Smith on indefinite leave, although Teague said the university still is evaluating the situation. Smith's memorandum of agreement, signed originally in 2007, contains this language: "Assistant coaches are expected to positively represent the University and our athletics program in both private and public forums" and contains a section on termination for "just cause." Smith's court date is Dec. 3, but Teague said he hadn't decided whether Smith would be suspended until then. While Smith is absent, his duties will be divided among other staff members.

The arrest, which occurred after Smith was pulled over for speeding and driving on the shoulder of I-394, came less than 24 hours after Mbakwe's probation violation case -- which was triggered by a drunken-driving arrest -- wrapped up in Florida. Mbakwe received two additional years of probation as well as several other stipulations.

Tubby Smith said the university suspended Mbakwe from team activities at the time, but the forward is not expected to miss any games, which Teague reiterated Monday. Teague, referring to the discrepancy in punishment between Mbakwe, 23, and Smith, 33, said the situations are very different.

"As it relates to student athletes, they're younger and they're going to make mistakes, and we'll still hold them accountable," Teague said. "But with a coach doing this, it's disappointing. The timing is one thing. The other thing is it's just not what we want."

It's not what donors want, either.

"You can't stop everything from happening, but you've got to look for some good to come out of this in some way," said Presthus, who played for the Gophers in the mid-1960s. "Re-examine what we're doing or not doing, how we're doing it and then go from there. When these things happen on your watch, you have to deal with them. Your credibility is all you've got going for you in a lot of these cases. ... You want to be selling a vision and excitement -- you don't want to be explaining away the other stuff."

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