Reusse: Gophers put their faith in a kid coach

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2013 - 6:54 AM

A week ago a lot of the talk was about Flip Saunders. Today we have Richard Pitino.

Billy Heywood finally has made it to Minnesota. He’s traded in his manager’s uniform for a basketball coach’s whistle, but there isn’t much difference between the fictional Billy and the real-life version brought to town under the name Richie Pitino.

Billy was the 12-year-old hero of “Little Big League.’’ He inherits the Twins from his grandfather, fires a manager deemed too hard on the players, takes over and leads the team to a Game 163 showdown.

Richie is the 30-year-old hero of “Norwood’s Amusing Quest.’’ He inherits a basketball reputation from his father, beats Louisiana-Monroe twice, waits for a half-dozen people to turn down a chance to coach at Minnesota, and gets Gopher Nation dreaming of future showdowns with Northwestern.

I don’t want to be too negative on this. Clearly, once the search gets to a point where the replacement for Tubby Smith comes down to Richie Pitino or Pam Borton, it’s easy to embrace athletic director Norwood Teague’s decision.

We all have been assured that Teague and associate AD Mike Ellis are as well connected as any people in college basketball through the Villa 7 weekend seminars for assistant coaches that were conducted at Virginia Commonwealth.

And, after this whiz-bang search by Teague and Ellis, it’s obvious that the name Villa 7 carries at least as much magic in college basketball as does a Tom Petters hedge fund in the financial world.

The Teague-Ellis tandem was so proud to be the first basketball brainiacs to fire Tubby Smith that it appears the information was leaked to buddies in the national media before it was leaked to the guy being fired.

There were two reasons for the local sporting public and media to embrace Smith’s departure: One, Tubby’s mediocre performance over six seasons at Minnesota; and two, the belief that Teague’s background at VCU and Ellis’ with Villa 7 would put them in position to make a blockbuster hire.

“You always have a short list,’’ Teague said on the day he fired Smith. “You always have people that you have in mind. Some are realistic, some are unrealistic, but I have a list in mind. We’ll work that and we’ll get a terrific coach.’’

It was easy to accept VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens, the two hottest young coaches in the country, as unrealistic for the Gophers. That was especially true when they turned out to be unrealistic for UCLA.

And, any interest expressed by Fred Hoiberg’s agent was easy to detect as a play for a new deal at Iowa State. “The Mayor’’ of Ames wound up getting 10 years out that rumor being floated, so hooray for him.

Later, we started hearing Mick Cronin at Cincinnati, which would have allowed him to get out of the mess that remains of the former Big East … soon to be a league with the Bearcats, UConn and Memphis as the only schools of basketball prestige.

Teague-Ellis couldn’t even a land a guy whose conference is leaving him to take this job in what today stands as the best basketball league in the country.

All this while, Flip Saunders — maroon-and-gold through and through, a longtime NBA coach, immensely popular with boosters — was available to be hired.

We loved to bad-mouth Joel Maturi, Teague’s predecessor, for his coaching searches. And it’s doubtful that Maturi would have mustered the audacity to fire Smith, the big-name coach who had landed in his lap in April 2007.

But we know this for sure:

Maturi wouldn’t have messed around with Saunders. The man we loved to ridicule would’ve had Flip hired within 48 hours of a Smith departure.

Tell me a week ago that the choice was Flip Saunders, a passionate ex-Gopher with an outstanding résumé, or a 30-year-old former student manager with little more than a famous surname to validate his candidacy, and I would have been standing in front of Williams Arena, acting as goofy as Larry Spooner at a Vikings stadium hearing, holding a sign and shouting, “Flip, Flip, Flip.’’

Teague and Ellis started this search as the two smartest guys in any basketball room. They return with a coach much more suspect than what poor old Northwestern managed in Chris Collins, an assistant but fully trained, rather than the nonfiction version of Billy Heywood.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com

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