Today, the University of Minnesota fired its head basketball coach, Tubby Smith. Smith served as the coach of the Gophers for six seasons, a time over which he won 60 percent of his games, never had a losing record, won 20 or more games five times, made three NCAA tournaments, and had the Gophers ranked in the AP poll in four separate seasons.
I say this as an alumnus of the University of Minnesota; this is just crazy.
It seems that coaches are fired so easily these days. Fan bases grow used to a certain level of success, and then when things stop improving they are ready to move on. Increasingly, athletic directors are deciding to move along as well.
It is highly likely that Smith’s successor will do substantially worse, given the historical norms for Minnesota basketball. Here is a list of coaches who posted higher winning percentages than Tubby did in Minneapolis:
1. Bill Mussellman
An outstanding coach to be sure, he spent four seasons at Minnesota between 1972 and 1975, winning 68 percent of his games and one Big Ten title.
2. Louis Cooke
You will be excused if you don’t remember Cooke; he coached the Gophers from 1898-1924, back when people could write the phrase Ski-U-Mah without irony. Cooke won 65 percent of his games and five Big Ten titles. He is the only Minnesota coach to win the league more than one time.
3. Jim Dutcher
Dutcher won 63 percent of his games during his tenure in Minneapolis, which took place from 1976-1986. He won the Big Ten once.
4. Ozzie Cowles
Cowles won 61 percent of his games at Minnesota, never winning a Big Ten title. He coached the Gophers from 1949-1959.
5. Tubby Smith
Smith has won a hair under 61 percent of his games during his six years in Minnesota. He has no Big Ten titles, but has made three NCAA tournaments.
You will note that Smith actually has a better winning percentage than Clem Haskins, who won 59 percent of his games. Haskins did win the Big Ten once and coached in six NCAA tournaments, including once in the Final Four. Haskins also had two other runs to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament while coaching the Gophers.
Of course, Haskins coached at Minnesota for twice as long, so having two times as many NCAA tournament trips seems par for the course.
So, by historical standards, Tubby Smith stacks up pretty well against previous Minnesota coaches. His predecessor, Dan Monson, did far less, and was given an extra two seasons.
And this season Smith’s team did well, particularly when we consider both the historical norms of the Minnesota program and the particularly stiff competition the Gophers face in their conference. Minnesota had not won a non-vacated NCAA tournament game since 1990, until this season. Think about that.
New athletic director Norwood Teague, by way of VCU, clearly wants to make a splash. I understand that much of the fan base more or less supports this move. Of course fan bases are generally delusional, so take that support for what it is worth.
Reading the Minnesota blogs and forums just makes me depressed. There is some delusion, of the “Shaka Smart could come here” variety, which mostly ignores the fact that he has previously passed on far more attractive positions. Then there is the, “our athletic director found the first Shaka Smart, so he will find the next one” delusion. Perhaps Teague is truly brilliant when it comes to making coaching hires, or perhaps he was merely lucky. I am the sort of person that thinks there are far more lucky people than there are brilliant ones.
It is also important to keep in mind the importance of geography. When we look at Shaka Smart’s program at VCU, on thing that is often overlooked is just how many talented high school basketball players come from the state of Virginia. Since 1998, Virginia has produced 80 RSCI top 100 recruits, the fifth most of any state in the nation. Over the same time period, Minnesota has produced 17 top 100 recruits. Virginia has produced 3.7 times the number of top 100 recruits per capita, and 4.7 times as many top 100 recruits when we compare raw numbers. Now, no top 100 recruit has attended VCU, but these differences are large enough to suggest that there is a substantial difference in the depth of Virginia high school ball when compared with the rest of the country.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that the Minnesota job, as major college coaching jobs go, is sort of crappy. And Minnesota will be extremely lucky if their next coach does as well as Smith.