Tubby's likeability didn't trump losses

MIKE MULLEN | Updated 4/4/2013

Throwback coach Tubby Smith is out.

Former Gophers men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith.
Photo by MARLIN LEVISON

The embers are still smoldering from the firing of University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith. Since Monday’s termination, debate has centered around the news leak on Twitter (“How?”), possible replacements (“Who?”) and the contract buyout of $2.5 million (“What?!”). But the social media anticipation, and reaction, and the outsized payout figure are mere symptoms, exemplars of the present moment — unlike Smith himself.

Arriving in Minneapolis in 2007, Smith seemed to have taken a train from the mid-1960s. A grandfatherly type, he spoke in hushed, humble tones and exhibited a resting heart rate of, say, six beats per minute. Smith was out of step with the modern college game, which belongs to a collection of slicked-back hucksters, bug-eyed drill sergeants and sweet-talking cheats.

As it turns out, the only thing not to like about Tubby Smith was his results, or the notable lack thereof. Smith’s Minnesota teams fell into a heartbreaking pattern of early-season victories, followed by withering results against tougher competition in the Big Ten and, especially, the NCAA Tournament, where his teams won just one game in six years. This year was no exception. In January, Minnesota had a 15-1 record and was ranked No. 8 in the country. Over the skid that followed, the Gophers lost 12 of their last 18 games, including Sunday’s 78-64 loss to the University of Florida, which ended Minnesota’s tourney bid and, as we now know, Tubby Smith’s tenure with the Gophers.

The Florida loss is an instructive case, providing a snapshot of a talented team utterly adrift. Big man Trevor Mbakwe did his best imitation of an enormous, limbless oak door. Playmaking forward Rodney Williams acted the part of a pogo stick gathering rust. The Gophers’ offense was reduced to Option No. 1: Andre Hollins shoots a three-pointer, or Option No. 2: Andre Hollins shoots a very difficult three-pointer. The team needed discipline, organization, adjustment — in short, it needed coaching. All of this happened under Tubby’s watch, despite his soft-spoken instructions. Perhaps his players couldn’t hear him.

In the end, Smith’s ouster, and the general outcry of “What took so long?” might reveal more about Minnesotans than it does their departed coach. Tubby Smith is a rare breed in college sports: a fine, upstanding fellow. Minnesota really liked him. Respected him, even. But there are more important things than respect.

We want wins.