Firing Tubby Smith was absolutely the right move. I was as ecstatic as everyone else when Tubby came to town in 2007 and believed the Gophers had scored a great coach. In retrospect, I should have listened to the Kentucky faithful: Tubby is not a great coach.
Smith had six seasons at the U, and he never had a Big Ten conference record above .500. He also never finished higher than sixth, only won one NCAA tourney game, and had a steady stream of talented players leave the program only to flourish after escaping Tubby’s constipated half-court offense. As for his five 20 win seasons? News flash: The Gophers’ nonconference schedule is stocked annually with borderline Division II schools, so forgive me if I choose to focus on his abhorrent 46-62 Big Ten record as the measure of his underachievement.
Now that the trash has been taken out, Gophers AD Norwood Teague must hire a new coach that can take the basketball team to the next level. I do not for a minute buy the notion that Minnesota cannot support a top basketball program. A facility upgrade is sorely needed, but already in place are a passionate fan base, a sufficient supply of local talent, and a spot in one of the best basketball conferences in the country. The next level is within reach, and whoever the next coach is must have the drive and basketball smarts to get there.
Who should be the next coach? Shaka Smart, Buzz Williams, and Anthony Grant would all be nice—assuming Teague could get them. But the man I want to see pacing the raised floor of Williams Arena is already going to nearly all the Gophers’ home games: Flip Saunders.
There are doubts that he would take the job, given his possible hiring as the Timberwolves’ new GM, and he has never publicly expressed any desire to be a college coach. But he has also never stated that he wouldn’t take the job either. Flip is a Minnesota resident, a U of M alum, has kids in the Twin Cities, and has a son who played with the Gophers that is now in the coaching profession. There are plenty of reasons to think he would take the job.
But would he be a good college coach? Pardon my language, but hell yes he would. Flip has a reputation for being a great teacher and designer of offense, which happen to be two of Tubby’s most glaring shortcomings. As for recruiting, I can’t think of anyone better than Flip. As a longtime NBA coach, he knows what it takes to be an NBA player, and potential top recruits will be well aware of this. Flip could use his league connections to blow these recruits away. Imagine a blue chip high school player trying to decide which school to attend, and then receiving a phone call from Kevin Garnett telling him how Flip helped him become an NBA first-ballot Hall of Famer. Or imagine this same kid getting calls from several NBA GMs who inform him that playing in Flip’s system will give them a leg up when draft time comes around. Even though many top high school players will never make it to the NBA, most of them believe they can, and this hope can be a major recruiting advantage for Flipper.
Yes, Flip is 58 years old, but there is no reason he can’t provide this team with a decade of success. And the whole young coach idea can be monstrously overrated anyway. Everyone falls in love with the fiery young guy who guides his scrappy mid major team to a 2 or 3 year run of overachievement, but far more often than not, this same ball of energy fizzles out when faced with the pressures of being a major conference coach. And even if you do unearth a gem, let’s face it, he will bolt for a destination job as soon as it’s available. Perhaps if Flip can raise Gopher basketball up to a top 3 Big Ten team—something the current crop of MN high school juniors could absolutely do—then the head coaching job at the U will become a destination job.
I think Flip can do it. The question is: Does he want to do it?