Trevor Mbakwe and all of his Gophers teammates had heard the rumors.
They are on Twitter, after all. They have Facebook accounts. And the whispers of Tubby Smith’s firing — which officially happened on Monday — were everywhere.
So the Gophers were well aware their coach was on the hot seat, and the cloud that hung over his position as they headed into their NCAA opener vs. UCLA on Friday night in Austin, Texas.
“You’d hear Coach [Ben] Howland vs. Tubby. Whoever loses that game is going to get fired,” Mbakwe said Monday. “You hear things like that, but you don’t put too much into it because you want to focus on the game.”
But even after Sunday’s loss to Florida knocked the Gophers out of the NCAA tournament and ended their season, Smith still hadn’t uttered a word about his precarious future to his squad.
“Not at all,” Mbakwe said. “From what it seemed like, it was a surprise to him and he didn’t know about it.”
Instead, Smith told his players in the locker room Sunday that he would get them together this week to discuss the season and the upcoming year. He talked about getting out and recruiting right away.
And then less than 24 hours later, he was shown the door.
After the news had broken, reactions ranged from surprise by a former player, glee from fans on Twitter and confirmation of the expected from national media members. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he was “saddened” by the volatility he sees in the coaching industry now.
“When social media hit, that made it impossible on coaches,” said Izzo, a good friend of Smith’s. “Because everybody puts stuff out there, they don’t care what they say or who they say it about. And people that aren’t really in touch believe what they hear even though three-fourths of it could be fictitious. Those stories can grow. They’re becoming Moby Dicks. They grow and they grow and then they become reality even though they’re not.
“Our profession lost a guy that I think has always done it right, has won everywhere he’s been and just couldn’t quite win enough, I guess.”
Who will step in to replace Smith is still an unknown, as Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague declined to provide any names, although there are a handful of candidates who likely will be on the short list.
VCU’s Shaka Smart — a man whom Teague originally hired for his first head coaching job — is the most popular name in the conversation.
Other considerations might be Marquette’s Buzz Williams or Flip Saunders, the ex-Gophers player and former Timberwolves coach. Then again, it could be someone entirely different.
“I think one of the worst things is if an administration has an inflated view of how good their job is,” USA Today basketball writer Eric Prisbell said. “If they really think they have a good chance to get Shaka Smart or they don’t, or a Brad Stevens or they don’t, it could be a long, drawn-out process, and nobody likes that and it plays out publicly in front of everybody.”