Thursday, March 22, 2007

Coup d'eTubby

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.

Until today.

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.


TBird41 said...

If you want to know what a good coach (and the school's administration committing to the program) can do, look no further than Georgetown. Three seasons ago, the Hoyas barely made the Big East tournament, losing to a St. John's team playing 2/3 scholarship players. Billy Packer called the program irrelevant on CBS during a national TV game.

They fired their coach after that season, and recommitted to the program, hiring a young, quality coach with a big name (albet in a different way than Tubby). This year, they're one of four programs to return to the Sweet Sixteen, won the Big East Tournament and have two McD All American's coming in next year.

I don't know if Tubby can turn the U's program around that quickly (The U doesn't have GTown's pedigree in Hoops circles, and I don't know what next year's recruiting class looks like--I doubt it has two eventual lottery picks in it), but he is a big name coach with a ring. I'd bet the Gophers make an NIT run next year, and then start challenging for the NCAA tournament the next few years. Not to mention that Tubby's only 55, and so he should be coaching for quite a few years. This was exactly the kind of hire that shows the administration cares about fielding a quality basketball program.

[And be thankfully that the Gophers didn't go after Karl Hobbs--his system is predicated on having better athletes than his opponents, something he can pull off at GW in the A-10, but would most likely not be able to at the U in the Big 10]

Anonymous said...

TBird -- Great comments, but it does beg the question... Why does Georgetown refuse to play GW? ;-)

Anonymous said...

For the record, that last comment wasn't from me!

I agree that JTIII has been a great hire for the Hoyas, but Esherick had already recruited Hibbert and Green. Also, Gary Williams threw a few too many of his players at Maryland under the bus causing the top local DC talent to stop looking at the Twerps and instead on the school on the hill.

Finally, Tubby is a great hire. I never understood the Flip love from the U faithful. The guy has squandered more talent than anybody else recently and seems like he would be disinterested in recruiting.


Cory said...

At the risk of making this a G'town v. GW debate (full disclosure: yours truly the author is a former Colonials student-athlete), Georgetown still has a lot to prove but indeed Tubby would do well to mimic JT3's success. That being said, Thompson has yet to play a player he has recruited from within the DC suburbs, all the while a young man from suburban Maryland named Kevin Durant tore up the NCAA. Tubby, as well as Thompson, needs to focus on his homefront first and foremost -- with that base, the rest will follow.

Oh, and did I mention Georgetown is still irrelevant? ;-) Cory

lever said...

I was a bit taken aback while listening to KFAN late Friday afternoon to hear not only a very forthright Joel Maturi, but also a guy with the slight edge of some clearly earned hubris in his voice. One memorable quote from said interview with Dan Barreiro, "The good thing is all our players are back next year. Of course, the bad thing is also that all our players are back next year." Ouch. :)

Maturi went on to answer, at least in roundabout fashion, nearly every question. Flip said no early on, so he was really out of the running. Had he talked with Knight's people? Ummm...(obliquely) Yup - no interest. Rick Majerus, unquestionably. How long had he been courting Smith? Since December.

Nice column there pally ;) I expect I will actually take to watching Gophers hoops again over the coming years. Oh, and go Twins, and um.. cut Silva!

buggles aka youtube killed the video star said...

Georgetown. Relevant.

Charles said...

Wait, Cory, did you say that JT III has yet to play someone recruited from the DC suburbs? Umm, many of us DC natives remember Roy Hibbert's days at Georgetown Prep -- their front three had an average height of 6'11" his senior year! (A few of us even remember that Goliath squad being slain in the conference finals by a scrappy St. Albans squad).

Andrew from ColonialHoops said...

Hail to the Buff! GW blogger here - I think the only reason Gtown doesn't play GW is because they're afraid if they lose, they'll look bad and/or would lose bragging rights. Otherwise, there's really no good reason not to. The two teams have played each other more than any other team, in or out of conference. However, they haven't played since 1980-81, which is just sad. A DC councilman and various Washington Post writers are agitating for a game. I wrote it some more on my blog as well,

Anonymous said...

Charles, both Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green (from right next to the University of Maryland-Community College) were recruited by Escherick before JTIII took over the program.