Scoggins: Hiring Saunders makes perfect sense for Gophers

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2013 - 11:52 AM

Flip Saunders, the former Gopher and ex-Wolves coach, would be a crowd-pleasing choice to replace Tubby Smith.

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Former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Coaching searches generally drive people cuckoo. They combine anticipation with agony and make every hour feel like an eternity.

We’ve officially arrived at that destination with the Gophers basketball situation.

The latest twist in the daily soap opera focused on Flip Saunders, the populist pick and reported front-runner who faces a fascinating dilemma: Does he want to coach the Gophers or possibly run the Timberwolves? Pretty sure NCAA rules and time constraints prohibit him from doing both, though both organizations could use his services at this point.

Saunders wasn’t athletic director Norwood Teague’s first choice, or maybe not even his second. But his hiring would be a smart decision, one that energizes a restless fan base and breathes life into the program.

Teague is no dummy. His Villa 7 program is wildly successful and a wonderful idea, but the “Hire Flip” outcry has reached a fever pitch and necessitates action. Why continue to look elsewhere when a solid candidate is sitting in the back yard?

Saunders played coy on the subject during his weekly appearance with KFAN’s Dan Barreiro on Friday afternoon. Saunders declined to confirm or deny anything involving the Gophers job and playfully described himself as an “ex-coach.” In other words, something is brewing.

The timing of this decision is critical — and not just because an announcement would deflect attention from the Gophers hockey team’s stunning loss to Yale in the NCAA tournament. Teague fired Tubby Smith less than a week ago, but as Gophers fans inch closer to delirium, Teague has remained in bunker mode, cut off from the outside world as he conducts his search in stealth.

Teague fancies himself a college basketball insider, and he’s undeniably plugged in to that sport as much as any athletic director. But Teague must realize that continuing to hesitate on Saunders could make Saunders feel like a fallback option if the search hits roadblocks. Saunders deserves better, and might spurn an offer if he’s ignored too long.

We still don’t know Teague’s thinking or strategy or actual list of candidates. That’s fine. But at the outset of this search, we viewed four coaches as home run hires: VCU’s Shaka Smart, Butler’s Brad Stevens, Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Saunders. I preferred the three college coaches because they’ve won at a high level and are considered elite coaches in the college game. Those three could succeed at Minnesota and provide the program and fan base with a jolt of excitement.

But Smart is staying put, and Stevens seems content at Butler. Williams, who reportedly has a lucrative buyout and salary at Marquette, is one victory from reaching the Final Four. The Gophers would represent a lateral move at best if they had a sparkling new practice facility, which they don’t, of course.

Were those three coaches unrealistic? Maybe.

But Teague has a connection to all three, and why not aim high and at least gauge their interest? But that doesn’t mean Saunders didn’t belong in that first wave of candidates. He would qualify as a splash hire, too.

Saunders played for the Gophers and served as an assistant coach at his alma mater in the 1980s. He attends practices and games and carries a deep emotional attachment to the program. His Twitter avatar is a picture of him in a Gophers uniform.

Saunders remains overwhelmingly popular among fans. He knows how to coach offense, which would be a welcome sight after enduring Tubby’s tortuous system. And Saunders is ingrained in the high school hoops scene and could make things interesting with the Big Three recruits — Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis.

Saunders’ ties to the Wolves and owner Glen Taylor add a layer of intrigue. Saunders reportedly tried to put together a group to purchase the Wolves from Taylor with the assumption that Saunders would oversee basketball operations. Taylor appears to be in no real rush to unload his team, but the owner faces a decision on his current basketball boss David Kahn, whose contract expires at the end of the season.

Despite their professional divorce years ago, Saunders and Taylor remain close and a reunion would make sense. But Saunders also could find employment across town.

Saunders doesn’t fit the Villa 7 profile that Teague and right-hand man Mike Ellis developed at VCU. The program matches top assistant coaches with athletic directors and has earned acclaim in the college basketball world. It’s a smart concept, but it’s not the only way to find a good coach.

Sometimes, you just need to look close to home.

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