For those of us who would like to think there is still a place for decency in the highest ranks of college basketball coaching, March 25 was a dark day. After six seasons that included five 20-win teams and three trips to the NCAA Tournament, the University of Minnesota fired ex-Kentucky head man Tubby Smith.
Of all the major basketball coaches I've covered, Smith is the most "normal," the personality that seemed the most balanced. In a profession now rife with cutthroat workaholics and deal-cutting confidence men, I wonder whether that normalcy has become an insurmountable weakness.
The Minnesota program Smith inherited in 2007 had never really recovered from the academic fraud scandal that took down then-coach Clem Haskins in 1999, two years after he had coached the Golden Gophers to the Final Four. In the Twin Cities, the hope was Smith could return Minnesota to the levels of success Clem the Gem enjoyed without the rules-breaking.
Things started well. Taking over a team that was 9-22 the season before he got there, Tubby improved Minnesota's win total by 11 games his first season (2007-08) and took the Gophers to the NIT. His next two seasons, Minnesota made the NCAA Tournament but failed to win a game.
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Smith's tenure at Minnesota was beset by rotten luck.
In 2009, he signed five-star in-state prospect Royce White. A 6-foot-7 power forward with an unusually versatile game, White should have been the player around whom Smith could build teams capable of deep March runs. Instead, White twice ran afoul of law enforcement and wound up suspended from the team. Without playing a game in a Golden Gophers uniform, he transferred to Iowa State.
Kentucky fans got a look at what White was capable of in the 2012 NCAA Tournament when he scored 23 points with nine rebounds and four assists against UK's eventual national champions.
In 2010-11, Minnesota entered the season with two high-quality point guards. After he lost playing time to Al Nolen, one of those guards, Devoe Joseph, quit the team in early January to transfer. Three weeks later, Nolen broke a foot and was lost for the season. At the time, Minnesota was 15-4 and ranked No. 16 in the country. With no point guard left, Minnesota collapsed to a 17-14 finish with no post-season tourney.
Last year, Minnesota star forward Trevor Mbakwe tore an ACL and missed the remainder of 2011-12. Without its best player, Minnesota missed the NCAA for the second straight year, but the Gophers did win 23 games and reach the finals of the NIT.
This season, with Mbakwe back and a roster that included jumping-jack forward Rodney Williams and guards Andre and Austin Hollins, Smith finally appeared to have a team capable of a breakthrough. The Gophers started the year 15-1, with victories over Memphis, Michigan State and at Illinois and with the only loss to Duke. Many touted Minnesota as a potential Final Four dark horse.
Then it all went wrong. The Golden Gophers finished the season on a 6-12 skid that included losses to Big Ten also-rans Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue.
Helped by a late-season upset of No. 1 Indiana, Minnesota snuck into the NCAA tourney. The Gophers blew out UCLA in the round of 64, but hopes for a job-saving March run for Tubby were dashed when Minnesota fell behind Florida by 21 at halftime in the round of 32.
With Smith no longer working for the athletics administration that hired him, the coach could not survive. The current Minnesota athletics director, Norwood Teague, is the AD who hired Shaka Smart at VCU.
If Shaka is, well, smart, he'll go nowhere near the Minnesota job. It comes with an ancient arena, no basketball practice center and, by Big Ten standards, marginal financial resources.
Shaka Smart can do better than Minnesota.
Whether Minnesota can consistently do better than what Tubby did is debatable.
It will be interesting to see whether Smith, at age 61, wants to write a better ending to what has been a distinguished coaching career. Does he have the fire in his belly for one more job?
As for a profession where a decent man with a normal personality seems an outlier, ESPN's Jay Bilas took to Twitter and spoke for many of us who have dealt with Tubby across the years.
"I'm sick at the firing of Tubby Smith," Bilas tweeted. "This is the business we've chosen, but that doesn't make it right. Not a better man in the game."