University of Minnesota administrators said they would move quickly on a decision about men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith once the season was over, and they were true to their word.
Less than 24 hours after the Gophers were eliminated from the NCAA tournament with a loss to Florida, Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague held a news conference Monday to announce Smith’s firing — a decision, Teague said, that came as the result of months of evaluation.
The 61-year-old Smith, who led Kentucky to a national championship in 1998, was coming off his first NCAA victory in six seasons here when the 11th-seeded Gophers topped sixth-seeded UCLA on Friday in Austin, Texas. That was not enough, however, to dissuade Teague from what he called a necessary fresh start for the program.
“Obviously, we want to play for our coach and we feel bad because his career was in our hands, we controlled it,” outgoing Gophers senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. “We let him down, and I guess we [caused] him to get fired.”
Teague gave the impression, however, that the decision was not based on one victory or loss.
“Our goal is to secure the best candidate to build a Big Ten and NCAA men’s basketball program that is a consistent winner,” Teague said. “We expect the new coach to manage and build the program. Expect him to recruit high-quality student athletes and develop them on and off the floor.”
Those were things that Teague — who took over as AD less than a year ago — and his top assistants hadn’t found in Smith. The feeling around the program was that Smith’s sometimes-questionable coaching decisions and strategies were not ideal and that his staff, which was also let go, didn’t provide the complementary pieces he needed to best succeed.
The Gophers staff didn’t have an ace recruiter, nor does Smith have that reputation, and the program continually has missed out on major targets in recent years. The coaching change comes at a time when the state of Minnesota has an unusually strong junior class of top national recruits, led by point guard Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, who led his team to the Class 4A championship on Saturday.
Those close to the Big Three recruits — Jones, DeLaSalle’s Reid Travis and Cooper’s Rashad Vaughn — recently have said that the Gophers’ late-season struggles under Smith had cooled the enthusiasm they had felt earlier in the season, when the team was winning more often. Minnesota is one of seven remaining schools that Jones has said he is considering. He learned about Smith’s departure early Monday afternoon and still IS letting it sink in.
What’s more, there was a sense among the higher-ups in the athletic department that Smith had lost his players. After starting the season 15-1 — including a 3-0 start in the Big Ten — with arguably his most talented bunch of players here, the Gophers won only six of their last 18 games. As the Gophers experienced great highs followed by deep lows, Smith seemed more baffled than anything with his team, and changed his approach in attempting to inspire them so frequently that it simply became another unstable factor in an otherwise tumultuous season.
Teague wouldn’t get into those factors Monday, saying only: “You look at a larger body of work, you look at a lot of factors and you try to come up with the best decision possible. There was no one factor that was more important than the others.”
Per the details of Smith’s contract extension, signed shortly after Teague took over as AD last year, he will receive $2.5 million as a buyout, up from $1.5 million it would have been before the extension.
“Anytime you spend money on buyouts it bothers me, as well, just like it bothers citizens of Minnesota,” Teague said. “I hope fans look at this one as an investment rather than an expenditure.”
Smith went 124-81 in six years with the Gophers, including a 46-62 record in the Big Ten. He won 20 games five of the six seasons and took the Gophers to the NCAA tournament three times and to the title game of the NIT once.
“I know in our profession, we’re hired to be fired, but you kind of hope you get fired because you lose,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a good friend of Smith’s.
“And now we’re to the point when you look at UCLA and Minnesota and different places like that, you’re getting fired because you didn’t win enough.”
Staff writer Jason Gonzalez contributed to this report.