In the end, Norwood Teague made the right call. The only call, truthfully.
He had to swallow hard and pay Tubby Smith his $2.5 million buyout. He had to fire his first coach as Gophers athletic director. The men’s basketball program couldn’t move forward with status quo.
If the buyout provision wasn’t a hang-up, the basketball component made for an easy decision because the program had grown stale under Smith with no signs of improvement on the horizon. If Smith couldn’t finish better than ninth in the Big Ten with his best team in six seasons, what does that say about his coaching?
We could recite a laundry list of reasons why a change is necessary, but Teague’s decision came down to two truths: Smith suffered a crisis of confidence within his fan base and the school was concerned about the program’s future, particularly as it relates to the recruitment of three highly ranked juniors in the Twin Cities — Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis.
Smith brought respectability and national recognition to the school in wake of the Dan Monson mess. But his tenure, as a whole, didn’t measure up to those grand expectations that pulsated throughout Dinkytown on the day of his arrival.
Smith failed to finish above .500 in any Big Ten season. His players displayed little improvement over their careers. His teams nose-dived in February. He routinely criticized players publicly without taking accountability. His half-court offense, substitution patterns and in-game coaching were confounding.
This simply couldn’t go on any longer. Teague had to realize that, too, as he evaluated the program the past few months.
The Big Ten is a basketball powerhouse right now. The league is ridiculously competitive and anchored by some top-tier coaches. Teague is a savvy basketball man who doesn’t want to settle for a mediocre program.
“This program needs to be good,” Teague said, “and it has the potential to be great.”
The program is not necessarily a destination job right now, but it can be. Teague is determined to make that happen. But that requires the school’s central administration to become willing partners in moving the program forward, however expensive that might be.
This is not the time to cut corners and operate on the cheap. College basketball at the highest level requires a significant financial commitment, and the Gophers need to determine if they’re going to be serious players.
Teague undoubtedly wants to hire an established coach, a big-time name, whether it’s VCU’s Shaka Smart, Marquette’s Buzz Williams, Villanova’s Jay Wright or former Gophers player and Wolves coach Flip Saunders.
A coach of that pedigree could command an annual salary in the neighborhood of $2.5 to $3 million. And they will have a hard time attracting a high-profile coach without a firm commitment to build a practice facility. That project needs to happen quickly. The lack of a practice facility remains a significant detriment to recruiting.
We’re well aware that money is a sensitive topic around campus these days. Coaches’ buyouts and university overspending have put school leaders in the public cross hairs. Bad business decisions have fueled the perception that the school either wastes money foolishly or is incompetent. Or both. Only the Gophers could lose money on beer sales.
But if Teague is handcuffed by resources, the athletic department will continue to pay expensive buyouts as it recycles coach after coach. The Gophers basketball program is highly profitable and needs to remain that way, which means the school must hire a proven coach who can energize the fan base and sign blue-chip recruits.
“I refuse to feel that we cannot grow as a program and not be great as a program,” Teague said. “I feel like if we bring someone in that has a fresh approach and fresh ideas that we can surprise ourselves.”
Teague indicated he won’t use a search firm to find a coach. That’s refreshing because it demonstrates that he has a plan, and he knows the college basketball landscape intimately.
A change in leadership seemed inevitable as this season fell apart. Fan criticism became too loud and the program too lifeless for Teague to sit idle. His basketball program desperately needs some energy and a new direction.