It has been exactly ten years since there was any buzz in Dinkytown on the opening day of the Sweet 16. In that year, it was Bobby Jackson, Sam Jacobson, and company winning a triple-overtime thriller against Clemson, catapulting them a week later to the program's only Final Four. Years later, following an infamous and ignominious departure by Kentucky basketball legend Clem Haskins, the program has faded nearly into oblivion.
At this moment, 4:43 EDT on March 22, sports radio from coast to coast, from Mike and the Mad Dog in New York to Jim Rome in Los Angeles, is talking about the University of Minnesota and their $1.8 million dollar hiring of one of the top ten or fifteen basketball coaches in the country, Tubby Smith. The biggest name to hit campus since Lou Holtz (with apologies to Don Lucia, Brad James, Laura Halldorson, and J Robinson, who have each brought NCAA Championships to the U in the last decade), Smith's record is absolutely indisputable. He has won half of the last ten SEC Championships, won an NCAA Championship (albeit with primarily Rick Pitino's kids), and is uniformly known as one of the true gentlemen in the sport.
Putting all that aside, however, what is perhaps most amazing from a Gopher fan's perspective is that a coach has left what is one of a handful of "birthright programs" to coach at the Barn. Analysts can point to any number of factors, including that Kentucky undoubtedly was looking to move on, but it comes right down to two things -- money and a desire to be where you're wanted. For weeks now the Gophers have been talking about "making a splash." Many speculated on Flip Saunders, I nearly gagged when I heard the Ostrich (Kevin McHale) mentioned, but reality taught us that the only hope we could have is an up and coming coach, probably coming off of a couple of whiz-bang years at a lesser program -- and even then it was more likely 2006 (and 2007?) NCAA D-II coach of the year Mike Leaf from Winona State than anyone like Winthrop's Gregg Marshall or GW's Karl Hobbs.
In the end, the Gophers put the bit between their teeth and finished the race for a new coach with panache. Do not discount what a dignified, articulate coach with an NCAA Championship under his belt can do to recruit talent to a location which is, let's face it, a basketball outpost. For years the Wolves have struggled to bring talent in because most NBA athletes consider it just too cold and remote. The problem is even more pronounced in college athletics. When coaches make that all-important home visit to the basketball recruiting hotbeds, Florida, California, and even New York City, I guarantee the question of climate and "distance from home" come up. Unfortunately, I also would not be surprised if the issue of race becomes more than the 800-pound elephant in the corner. Let's face it, even though it is accepting and progressive, Minnesota remains, for all intents and purposes, a white state. When tow-headed Dan Monson shows up to recruit, it can do very little to portray an alternative image. When a respected African-American, be it Clem Haskins or Tubby Smith, walks in the door, it (ironically) makes race a non-issue.
In 1982, my dad treated me to a handful of games at the Barn on the way to a Gophers' Big Ten Championship. That team and those to follow in the remainder of that decade had a few Minnesotans, but they all sort of followed the same pattern -- Randy Breuer, Jim Petersen, John Shasky (ok, he's from Michigan). Throw in the odd Trent Tucker, Mark Hall, and Tommy Davis, and you had decent, if not good teams. These days, while the Spencer Tollacksons, Rick Rickerts, and Kris Humphries continue to come out of the state, so do the likes of Troy Bell, Kammron Taylor, and Patrick O'Bryant. Prep basketball is at an all-time peak in this state and a resume including NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances with three programs (Tulsa, Georgia, and Kentucky, where he never lost a first round game) will keep more of those players here than a Dan Monson or Jim Molinari. Throw in that he can also make inroads in SEC land, where his name is synonymous with success and he wreaks of pedigree (and class), and Tubby can turn this program, which does have tradition, around akin to what Kelvin Sampson has started doing in Indiana. I don't think that, an expectation of regular NCAA appearances with the odd-shot at advancing to a Regional Final, is crazy in what is now a wide-open Big Ten.
So, with all that in mind, here are two sentences I never dreamed I'd write:
Well done, Joel Maturi. Welcome "home," Tubby Smith.