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Updated: March 25th, 2013 4:51pm
Zulgad: Gophers' failure to reach expectations cost Tubby Smith his job

Zulgad: Gophers' failure to reach expectations cost Tubby Smith his job

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Six years later it remains easy to recall the excitement that existed on the University of Minnesota campus the day Tubby Smith was hired as men's basketball coach.

Two months earlier then-athletic director Joel Maturi had selected an unknown NFL assistant as his football coach. Few knew anything about Tim Brewster, and while no one could have predicted how bad of a coach he would prove to be, it was safe to say that naming him to the job caused some serious head scratching.

Smith's hiring in March 2007 was the opposite.

The move was considered a coup for Maturi.

Coming off a season during which Dan Monson had been sacked, the Gophers had managed to replace him with a guy who had compiled a 263-83 record in the previous 10 seasons at Kentucky. Smith's teams at Kentucky never failed to make the NCAA tournament and won the national title in 1998.

And after all that success, Smith had resigned as the Wildcats coach - or so we thought that was the case -- to take over the Gophers. What could be the downside?

Given that level of enthusiasm there are many who will look back at Smith's six-season tenure in Minnesota and deem it a disappointment. Smith's time as the Gophers coach came to an end Monday when Norwood Teague made his first significant move as the school's athletic director and fired him.

This came hours after the Gophers had fallen behind Florida by 21 points at halftime and lost, 78-64, in their third-round NCAA tournament game in Austin, Texas. Two nights earlier, the Gophers had cruised to a 20-point lead over UCLA in their opening game.

Smith, 61, went 124-81 overall at Minnesota and 46-62 in the Big Ten. He never finished higher than sixth place in the conference and went to three NCAA tournaments, going 1-4, with the lone victory coming Friday against a disinterested bunch from Los Angeles.

"I feel it's time for a fresh approach for our basketball program, for our student athletes and the program in general," Teague said. "We felt now following the season where there were high expectations for this coaching staff that it was time to make a change for the benefit of our student athletes as we build for the future ... It's my expectation that we have a successful and winning men's basketball program here at the University of Minnesota."

Teague was vague when asked about when the decision to fire Smith was made - the move will cost the university $2.5 million in a buyout and the total cost for Smith will come to $3.35 million - but it's pretty clear that it was decided some time ago that a failure to reach the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament meant Smith was finished.

Teague's move was met with a mixed reaction but anyone who is surprised by this is being naive.

Teague quietly has been changing the culture in the athletic department since he took over last June. But Monday's firing establishes that Teague's shakeup won't just be with employees who are behind the scenes.

This much is clear: This is no longer Maturi's country club.

By firing Smith, Teague has shown the fact he has plenty of clout. He was asked several questions about the buyout of Smith and how paying so much could be justified, but in Teague's mind keeping Smith is what couldn't be justified. He made it clear during an interview on 1500 ESPN several weeks ago that having to pay a buyout wouldn't stop him from making a move.

Last July, Smith received a contract extension through 2016-17 that surprised many who wanted to see far more from his team. The Gophers appeared set to deliver when they started 15-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten and were ranked eighth in the country.

They then lost their next four games and began a roller-coaster ride for the remainder of the season that included a late-season victory over top-ranked Indiana and inexplicable losses at Nebraska and Purdue.

"It's really a future decision," Teague said of the move. "I didn't evaluate the NCAA tournament only, didn't really evaluate this year only. It's more of a matter of evaluating where we are and where we're going and we want to build for the future. That's a huge part of what went into play here."

Here's what Teague and his right-hand man, Mike Ellis, likely were thinking and told university President Eric Kaler: If we don't buyout Tubby, we are going to see a decrease in season-ticket sales and there's no booster on earth who is going to help pay for a practice facility with Smith as the coach.

Then there is the matter of recruiting and the fact that it appeared likely three in-state standouts from the class of 2014, Apple Valley point guard Tyus Jones, Cooper shooting guard Rashad Vaughn and De La Salle forward Reid Travis, all might be heading elsewhere.

In 2009, Smith signed top-100 recruits Royce White and Rodney Williams, but since that time he had not managed to get a commitment from a big-name player. Last week, power forward Gavin Schilling, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior from Nevada, decided to play for Michigan State.

A new coach now might have a chance to begin working on Jones, Vaughn and Travis with the hope he can land at least one of them.

While Teague was given the go-ahead to sack Smith, he will be under pressure to make the right hire. But if Teague and Ellis are prepared to do anything it's pursue a basketball coach.

Teague came to Minnesota from VCU, where he hired Anthony Grant and then replaced him with Shaka Smart when Grant went to Alabama. Smart led VCU to the Final Four in 2011 and has been considered a front-runner to take a big-time job as soon as he wants to leave.

The names of Smart, Grant and former Wolves coach Flip Saunders all were bandied about Monday as potential candidates. Teague made it clear that he will handle the hire, announcing that unlike past university searches no outside firm will be used to find a coach.

Teague is confident that he can handle this himself. He also is confident that it was time to move on from Smith.

"I tell you what, he was very gracious," Teague said of Smith's reaction. "I could see the disappointment in his eyes and that's hard to tell Tubby. He's a great human being. I don't think he was totally surprised, but he was very gracious and that did not surprise me because of the way that he conducts himself and the person that he is."

Teague is right. Smith is a good guy who ran a clean program.

But ultimately that wasn't the point.

Smith's name alone caused expectations to soar when he arrived on campus. His teams never met those expectations and as a result as of Monday he is now an out of work coach.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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