Minnesota basketball coaching job: Who wants it?

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 1, 2013 - 12:05 PM

Perceptions vary on the attractiveness of Tubby Smith’s old position and about which coach would be the right fit.

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This has to be Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart’s favorite time of year — the NCAA tournament, followed by college ADs calling to ask Smart to take over their programs. The Gophers and UCLA are interested in hiring him, but VCU also is trying to negotiate an extension to keep him.

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University of Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague didn’t hold back when describing his ideal coaching candidate for the Gophers men’s basketball head coach, a position that opened up when he fired Tubby Smith on Monday.

He wants a coach who will bring a “long tenure of success.” He wants a coach who will compete in the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament. He wants a coach who will “manage and build the program” and recruit “high- quality student-athletes and develop them on and off the floor.”

Teague wants — to put it succinctly — a coach who is a winner.

But does that coach want Minnesota?

The Gophers covet Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, a trendy pick who is, coincidentally, the lead hopeful for UCLA’s opening. But the former Florida assistant, who Teague hired to his first head coaching job when he was AD at VCU, might not be going anywhere. While nothing is finalized, Sports Illustrated and USA Today reported Tuesday that VCU hopes to give Smart an extension by the end of the week.

Even before the news, it was tough to imagine Smart, one of the hottest young coaches in college basketball at 35, choosing Minnesota over UCLA. With the search for Smith’s successor ramping up, this question is relevant: Just how good (or not) is the Gophers job?

The answer depends on the lens through which it’s viewed.

Most agree there are draws at Minnesota, which has no other Division I competition in the state. The Gophers play in the Big Ten — widely considered the best conference in college hoops this season — and now have an athletic director who has presided over proven basketball success.

“I think [Minnesota] is in a position that’s like a sleeping giant, just waiting for someone to come in and take advantage of that opportunity,” said Paul Presthus, a former Gophers player and current booster, noting the fertile untapped recruiting ground.

But that’s not the entire story. The Gophers don’t have the rich tradition and winning history of conference rival Indiana or coaching search rival UCLA. They also don’t have a basketball practice facility — a basic element of a big-time program in the eyes of recruits and coaches. Their home, 85-year-old Williams Arena, isn’t exactly a spectacle of extravagance or modern amenities.

By those measures, UCLA will beat out the Gophers every time.

And while the Gophers are in the Big Ten, they aren’t headlining the league. USA Today’s Eric Prisbell called Minnesota the “ninth-best job in the league right now” and Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg said the job was in a tier below the top six. Compared with the available job at USC — a program Eisenberg put a notch below Minnesota, while acknowledging the Gophers were already a rung below UCLA — the expectations dramatically differ.

“If a USC coach did what Tubby did at Minnesota and made the NCAA tournament three out of six years, he would certainly be employed,” Eisenberg said.

The consensus is that Minnesota is a good enough job that a new hire, even one without the splash of Smart, should be enough to rejuvenate a fan base — and possibly the “Big Three” local recruits for 2014: Apple Valley point guard Tyus Jones, Cooper shooting guard Rashad Vaughn and DeLaSalle power forward Reid Travis.

“They shouldn’t have to settle for somebody, because it’s not a bad job,” said Jeff Borzello of CBSSports.com. “They might not get Shaka Smart or [Butler’s] Brad Stevens, but I still think they can aim high enough that they can expect more than one NCAA win in six years.”

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