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Updated: February 28th, 2013 4:30pm
Gophers AD Teague reserving judgment about Tubby Smith’s future

Gophers AD Teague reserving judgment about Tubby Smith’s future

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS - A fresh surge of optimism has been infused into the Gophers men's basketball team, at least temporarily, after its stunning upset of No.1 Indiana on Tuesday.

The impressive victory, which was capped by the first court storming at Williams Arena in 11 years, put an end to a wearisome few weeks and served as a stabilizer to a season that was headed in the wrong direction.

But even with the Gophers' most recent resurgence, the long-term status of sixth-year coach Tubby Smith remains a lingering question as the season enters its final weeks.

Gophers athletics director Norwood Teague is making it a point to stay away from any discussions of potential changes that could be made to the men's basketball program this offseason.

"I'm always going to make it a policy that at the end of the year is when I'm going to comment on the program or the coach," Teague said Thursday in a casual meeting with reporters. "That's only fair ultimately to the student athletes, because I don't want it to be a distraction to them."

The next month will be a critical indicator to what the long-term future holds for the Gophers.

For the moment, the Gophers (19-9, 7-8) have notably tempered the damage of their 3-8 skid in the middle of Big Ten play. With the emotional high gleamed from one of the program's biggest wins since the 1990s, they have a legitimate opportunity in the final three games of the regular season to obtain a 10-8 Big Ten record.

Getting to the 10-win threshold, and 22 wins overall, is an accomplishment Smith has not achieved since taking over the program in 2007. Match-ups against three of the Big Ten's bottom four teams - Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue - put that goal well within reach.

However, if the Gophers were to falter again in a dramatic way, Smith and his coaching staff could find their jobs to be in jeopardy.

Smith is obviously aware of the increased criticism that has been directed at his program. That criticism has indeed softened in the wake of the Indiana victory, but it won't dissipate further unless the Gophers continue to mount a late-season turnaround.

The 61-year-old coach has adopted a levelheaded perspective about the situation, calmly acknowledging the negativity, but keeping it from derailing his talks with the media and his coaching approach.

"Somebody asked me before how all the negative publicity (affects me)," Smith said. "I said, 'You know folks, I'm too old to even worry about that. I'm pretty secure in my skin, with who I am, so I don't really pay attention to it."

"I know what my job is and that is to win games, to develop young men's hearts, souls and bodies. I thought the spirit of (Tuesday's game) was a healthy experience for everyone that was at the Barn or watched the game. There is a lesson to be learned."

As would be expected, Teague, along with associate athletic director Mike Ellis, have been following Smith's program closely. Teague and Ellis were at Ohio State last week when the Gophers were trounced 71-45 in the second of back-to-back blowout losses.

And both were at Williams Arena to witness the rollicking post-game scene on Tuesday as players and fans celebrated in a frenzied mosh-pit of sorts on the elevated floor. It was an experience that left Teague, who took over as AD last June, excited about what he said was "as good as I've seen" at the storied 84-year-old arena.

And Teague was in the locker room following the game to embrace Smith in a congratulatory hug.

"All coaches take it hard when you lose, no matter who you are," Teague said. "I don't think we can ever understand the amount of anguish they go through. I've seen it over the years with weight loss and stress on your face. He's not immune to that. We talk a lot. He's a pro. He's done it for a long time."

If the Gophers' season were to take another downward turn, finances are likely to play a major role in any coaching decisions.

Smith's contract was extended last July, signing him through the 2016-17 season at close to $2 million per year. If the Gophers cut ties with Smith in the offseason, they would be on tap to pay him at least $2.5 million, plus retirement payments and severance packages for his assistants.

According to associate athletic director/CFO Tom McGinnis, the Gophers are still paying off $2.9 million worth of loans (as of June 30, 2012) associated with the buyouts of Smith's predecessor, Dan Monson, and former football coaches Glen Mason and Tim Brewster. Those payments will play a role in any future moves.

"It's a part of the whole financial equation of everything we do, not just a specific sports," Teague said. "It always plays into your budget decisions, but for us, the buyouts that we're paying now have been budgeted, so it's not like it was new this year."

Another wrinkle to the athletic department's financial status is the current sour state of coach Pam Borton's women's basketball team. Borton led the Gophers to the Final Four in 2003-04, but her program has fallen off in recent years.

The "U" women have missed the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons. That number is likely to reach four with the Gophers sitting in eighth place in the Big Ten standings at 5-9 and 16-12 overall. As a result, Borton has been placed further onto the proverbial hot seat.

In a move that was never announced publicly, Borton received a two-year contract extension last year, securing her spot through the 2015-16 season. The deal was made under former AD Joel Maturi. Teague said he was aware of it when he took over the athletics department, but had no say in the final contract.

To buy out Borton's contract at the end of this year, the Gophers would have to pay the 11-year head coach around $500,000.

It is unclear how much of a role Borton's future, if at all, plays into what the Gophers end up doing with Smith and his staff.

Both situations will become less hazy as March transpires.

Smith has time to come close to assuring his return next season. He has his team on the verge of its first NCAA tournament appearance in three years. The Gophers are operating under high expectations given their strong 15-1 start, talented lineup and extended glimpses of potential. A tourney berth and a win in the round of 64 could be more than enough to keep Smith in place for a seventh year.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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