Scoggins: Replacing Smith not a cheap proposition

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2013 - 11:24 AM

Expensive buyouts make university bigwigs nervous in this economic climate, but losing also becomes costly because interest and donations wane in tough times.

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Firing Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith would cost the athletic department $6 million at a minimum.

Photo: Brian Ray, Associated Press

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Remember when Tubby Smith danced and Trevor Mbakwe put his coach in a fireman's carry and the Gophers locker room shook in jubilation? Yeah, that was a real hoot.

Anyone still dancing and laughing?

That euphoria didn't take long to disappear. One miserable 30-minute stretch against Iowa on Sunday turned the Gophers back into a lifeless bunch playing aimlessly against a standard zone defense while their coach fumed in his chair, unable to stop the nosedive.

And so the seething anger that's tethered to the Gophers men's basketball team returned after a one-game hiatus. Smith is irate at his players, fans are irate at Smith, everyone is mad at everything. If Gophers basketball had a blood pressure reading, it would result in immediate medical attention.

Their latest low, a 21-point drubbing at Iowa, dropped the Gophers to 6-7 in the Big Ten and gave them seven losses in their past 10 games. The "Fire Tubby" chorus grows louder with each ugly performance, and Smith's days in Dinkytown appear numbered if the Gophers can't pull themselves out of this tailspin and do something in March.

This is Smith's best team. These are his players, and he did nothing to temper expectations before the season or when the Gophers climbed into the top 10 in January. Whether everyone overestimated the talent level on this team is inconsequential, because the Gophers have exhausted their supply of excuses in recent years. They have nothing left to blame except themselves.

Smith deserves the criticism because his team has crumbled yet again in February. It has become routine for fans and message-board posters to speculate about who should replace Smith, but the decision athletic director Norwood Teague faces involves more than just writing a check to cover Smith's $2.5 million buyout. A coaching change would cost the athletic department $6 million at a minimum. The school would owe Smith his buyout and any severance to his assistant coaches. The Gophers also would have to pay the buyout of any existing head coach they hired and give him at least $2 million annually.

Teague also would feel obligated to give football coach Jerry Kill a raise. Kill is the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten, and whether you believe he deserves a raise or not, Teague is not going to continue to pay his football coach $1 million less annually than his basketball coach. The system doesn't work that way.

All that money likely would be raised through private fundraising because the athletic department still is paying off a loan it received from the school's central administration to cover buyout costs for former coaches Glen Mason, Dan Monson and Tim Brewster. The athletic department owes $400,000 annually until 2017. And don't forget the Gophers agreed to pay $800,000 to cancel a football series against North Carolina.

Coaches' buyouts have become the norm in college athletics these days. Expensive buyouts make university bigwigs nervous in this economic climate, but losing also becomes costly because interest and donations wane in tough times.

Teague won't evaluate Smith's job publicly during the season, nor should he. Teague also hasn't cited any sort of performance benchmarks that will determine whether this is a successful season. The guess here is that Smith needs to make the NCAA tournament and advance to the second weekend to feel completely safe. Anything less would feel underwhelming and could necessitate a change if -- and this remains a big if -- the financial component doesn't serve as a deterrent.

One thing is certain: Teague knows basketball. He knows how a successful basketball program looks and operates and how important one is to the overall viability of an athletic department.

He graduated from the University of North Carolina, worked in athletic administration at UNC and, more recently, had a front-row seat to Virginia Commonwealth's rise to national prominence and a Final Four appearance. Teague hired Mike Ellis to oversee basketball on his senior management team at Minnesota. Ellis served as a student manager at North Carolina under legendary coach Dean Smith and later became an assistant coach at VCU for 13 seasons.

They're not novices who don't know what they're watching. They see the same bad body language and discombobulated half-court offense everyone else sees.

The Gophers still have time to right themselves and save their season. This team has enough talent to be good, but not elite. They just look lost right now. And that has left everyone angry and on edge.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

  • Gophers at (18) Ohio State: 6 p.m. Wednesday • TV: BTN (1500-AM)

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