MINNEAPOLIS — Tubby Smith was hailed as a rescuer when he came to Minnesota from Kentucky in 2007, a championship-certified coach who would restore a once-proud program to respectability after it was brought down by scandal.
Smith accomplished much of what he was brought in to do, bringing the Golden Gophers back to the NCAA tournament three times, keeping Minnesota free of NCAA violations for six years and bringing some energy back to Williams Arena.
When new athletic director Norwood Teague saw the progress stagnate, he decided it was time for a different voice to continue to take the next step. Smith was fired on Monday, one day after the Gophers lost to Florida in the NCAA tournament.
“I feel it’s time for a fresh approach for our basketball program, for our student athletes and the program in general,” Teague said.
“We felt now following a season where there were high expectations for this coaching staff that it was time to make a change for the benefit of our student athletes and as we build for the future.”
Smith was 124-81 (.610) in six seasons at Minnesota, winning 20 games five times and bringing the first NCAA tournament victory since 1997 when the 11th-seeded Gophers beat UCLA last week.
But he went just 46-62 in Big Ten play and never finished higher than sixth in the conference.
Smith was welcomed with wild enthusiasm when he arrived to replace the overmatched Dan Monson, who was unable to raise the program from the abyss created by an academic fraud scandal that ended up wiping out the team’s Final Four appearance in 1997.
Smith won 20 games his first season and took the team to the NCAA tournament the following year, restoring some sense of pride to a team that at one time was the most popular draw in the Twin Cities.
But the success seemed to level off after that. The Gophers made the tournament again in 2010, missed it in 2011 and settled for an NIT bid last year as fans started to grow impatient.
“I want to thank the University of Minnesota and the people of Minnesota for giving me the opportunity to lead the Golden Gopher basketball program for six years,” Smith said in a statement provided by the school. “Our staff did things the right way and will leave knowing that the program is in far better shape than when we arrived.”
This year’s team started off 15-1 and rose as high as No. 8, with wins over Michigan State, Illinois and Memphis during that run.
But they quickly came back down to earth, losing seven of 10 games in Big Ten play and squeaking into the tournament as a No. 11 seed thanks in large part to a late-season win over then-No. 1 Indiana at home.
The Gophers handled UCLA in the second round of the tournament only to be thumped by Florida in the next round. A common refrain from fans was that the players, and the team, didn’t improve as the season went on. The Gophers never finished with a Big Ten record above .500 and finished in seventh place or worse four times in his six seasons.
Undaunted, Smith always pointed to his reputation for running a clean program and the empty cupboard he inherited when he arrived.
“I don’t apologize or I don’t defend anything,” Smith said last week. “We do the best we can. We do a good job. That’s why we’re NCAA bound.”
Word of Smith’s firing leaked Monday morning, but the coach didn’t find out about the decision personally until meeting with Teague in the afternoon. That didn’t sit well with Smith’s agent, Ricky Lefft.
“Coach, certainly with all that he’s contributed to the program and the university and to the city, I think was deserving of better,” Lefft said. “It’s definitely, definitely, definitely disappointing.”
When Smith left Kentucky, he was promised by the previous Minnesota administration a new practice facility and improvements to historic, but outdated, Williams Arena. Those improvements never came, but Smith remained hopeful.
“To be able to compete, you have to have the resources available there,” Lefft said. “It’s not a level playing field.”
The decision to part with a big-name coach after a rare tournament victory for the program is a bold one for Teague, who is in his second year on the job. It requires a cash-strapped athletic department to raise $2.5 million for Smith’s buyout, in addition to the funds Teague is trying to generate to upgrade the facilities.
“Any time you spend money for buyouts it bothers me as well, just like it bothers citizens of Minnesota,” Teague said. “I hope fans will look at this one as an investment, rather than an expenditure.”
With a bevy of highly touted recruits in the state, Teague is acting quickly partially to give a replacement time to forge relationships with players including Apple Valley point guard Tyus Jones, one of the most sought-after juniors in the country.
Teague and his top assistant, Mike Ellis, are considered to be plugged in to the college basketball world and have a list of candidates to replace Smith at the ready.
“You always have a short list. … Some are realistic, some are unrealistic but I have a list in mind,” Teague said, declining to name any specific candidates. “We’ll work that and we’ll get a terrific coach.”
Teague came to Minnesota from Virginia Commonwealth, and it has been speculated almost since his arrival that he would eventually bring Shaka Smart with him. But Smart may have higher profile suitors waiting for him as well with openings already at UCLA and USC.
Other names that could come up are former Timberwolves coach and Golden Gopher alumnus Flip Saunders, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Marquette’s Buzz Williams.
“You want to move quickly and you want to hustle but you don’t want to be too much in a hurry,” Teague said. “So we’ll move swiftly. I don’t want to put a time frame on it but I want to get there as soon as we can.”