Minnesota, Tubby Smith and The Right Way

March 31, 2013
Minnesota, Tubby Smith and The Right Way

The administration at the University of Minnesota believes the men’s basketball program can and should be better. They needed to consider whether Tubby Smith gave them a decent shot at being better.

After six seasons as the Gophers’ head coach, Tubby Smith was losing his talented front line combo of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Smith’s teams had never been above .500 in the Big Ten and never secured a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament.

Year seven projected to be more challenging than 2012-13. Smith was a coach with a huge contract, few results and no answers.  The Gophers’ basketball program was stuck with a low ceiling hanging over its head.

Minnesota acted the right way by terminating Smith’s employment. No matter who the next head coach is, he will give the program a chance to be better. 

The downside risk is that the team on the floor does a bit worse under a new coach than it would have under Smith. Instead of back-to-back six win seasons, maybe it’s only five wins a year. Instead of an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament, perhaps the Gophers are slotted at No. 12.

The upside potential is far greater than the downside risk. The success of the new coach is something to be judged over the next several years, not in the coming weeks. The firing of Smith is something that can be judged today and it was a wise decision.

Tubby Smith and “The Right Way”

When asking about Tubby Smith as a basketball coach the most frequent response you’ll hear is that he is a nice man. The on court performances of his teams at Minnesota were disappointing and that can’t easily be defended. The result is that Tubby supporters must rely on hypothetical nonsense or go off topic and into emotion-invoking cliches.

The fact that Smith had the men’s basketball program going nowhere fast is plenty of reason to let him go. However, a lot of people praise Smith as a great coach because of his personality or perception thereof. It’s a credit to the man that he has so many friends and fans. 

Do the cries of him being “too decent” and “doing things the right way” deserve consideration with respect to judging his shortcomings on the court?

When people say Smith (and other coaches whose teams don’t do well) does things “the right way”, they are implying that this is unique in college basketball.  Compliments are easy to hand out. However, those who praise a coach for doing things the right way as though it’s unusual will cower when asked to name some coaches that don’t do things the right way.

I think “the right way” is usually just a way to deflect attention away from relevant topics. Again, it says something about Tubby Smith that people stand up for him. He must be a truly good friend to a lot of people. That’s wonderful from a personal relationship perspective, but did he do things the right way at Minnesota?

It’s not necessary to get deep into issues that haven’t surfaced to the view of most people, but just glossing over a few well known items is enough to question “the right way” argument.

  • In the civil courts: Smith’s missteps in attempting to hire Jimmy Williams as an assistant set the tone and have cost the school substantial amounts of time, money and goodwill.
  • In the criminal courts: Multiple players brought in by Smith were guilty of multiple crimes while at the U. In addition to player issues, Smith’s own son and member of the coaching staff contributed to the crime count this fall (adding to the argument for an anti-nepotism stance going forward). 
  • Odd transfers: Players leaving a school is a normal occurrence in D1 basketball. However, the circumstances around several player departures from Minnesota have been quite unique (including Devoe Joseph [gave up a year of competition eligibility], Colton Iverson [transferred after junior season despite being required to sit out a year at Colorado State] and Royce White).
  • In the classroom: A key player became academically ineligible in the middle of a season. In addition, Minnesota’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) has been the worst in the Big Ten over the past few years. The basketball team is not of out the woods with regard to the potential of falling into postseason ban territory due to the poor academic performance of Smith’s student-athletes. 

Tubby Smith and the program under his direction didn’t perform well on the court, off the court or in the courts. Imagine if he was like most coaches and had done things the wrong way.

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