Before he hired Jerry Kill in 2010, former athletics director Joel Maturi used the term “Tubby Smith hire” to present his lofty vision for the next Gophers football coach.
In 2010, Smith’s name was bulletproof. You spoke of him in the same vein as Phil Jackson or Bill Belichick — flawed coaches whose impressive résumés inflated expectations and abated criticism.
Flawed as he was, Smith had earned his praise. He had led the Gophers basketball team to the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons, kept a once-tainted program clean and earned the Gophers their highest official ranking in 28 years.
But things have changed.
Smith’s Gophers have missed the last two NCAA tournaments after 6-12 Big Ten seasons. The face of the Gophers, Trevor Mbakwe, has been arrested three times in four years. This season’s team, which features five NBA prospects, received just nine votes for a national ranking in a preseason poll.
A few weeks after Mbakwe’s latest blunder — a DWI arrest in July — new AD Norwood Teague rewarded Smith with a juicy contract extension. Teague also let Smith decide to keep the troubled forward on the team.
The message couldn’t have been clearer: We have faith in you, Coach, to live up to your name.
Fortunately for Smith, now’s the perfect time to do it.
The stars have aligned for the Gophers this season, and it won’t take an elite coach to make a Big Ten champion and NCAA contender out of them.
Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are seniors. Next year they’ll likely be playing in the NBA, making fans wonder how Smith didn’t get more out of them during their careers in maroon and gold.
Underclassmen Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman and Mo Walker may have NBA futures, too. Hollins’ explosiveness ranks among the Big Ten’s best, and Coleman already has an NBA body. The 6-foot-10, 300-pound Walker has a frame that resembles Shaquille O’Neal and the court awareness of a young Tim Duncan.
Talent aside, the Gophers showed they had chemistry and grit last spring, when Williams and Hollins led them to the final of the National Invitation Tournament.
Minnesota’s two toughest NIT wins were decided in the last minute, demonstrating an improved ability to finish games. The Gophers could have used that ability earlier in the season, when they lost nailbiters to top Big Ten opponents Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan.
With Mbakwe and Williams’ leadership and Hollins’ postseason experience, the Gophers should close games even better this season. That will translate to victories against overrated Big Ten competition — if talent alone doesn’t get the job done.
The Gophers will also benefit from playing a Big Ten schedule that suits their strengths. The teams that upset them last year — Iowa (twice) and Northwestern — don’t have the talent to repeat the feat against an improved Gophers team.
The five teams ranked above Minnesota — Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin — either have their own off-the-court issues or match up poorly against the Gophers’ size.
Minnesota has its own issues with the law, a lack of backcourt depth and poor late-game coaching. None of these are legitimate excuses if the team fails. If Smith can’t make the most of a once-in-a-decade opportunity and keep his players focused, why is the University paying him $2 million a season?
Fans shared similar concerns about Smith last season, when he excused loss after disappointing loss. But his excuses then made sense. His starting center was Ralph Sampson III. He lacked job security. And he knew Mbakwe had a good chance of returning for a sixth season.
Sampson’s gone, Smith’s getting paid whether he wins or loses and Mbakwe’s so confident the Gophers will win that he offered to refund his scholarship if they don’t make the NCAA tournament.
If Smith can’t achieve that and more with this team, he’d best make a similar offer. Or better yet, save the University a few much-needed millions and resign.