University of Minnesota sets out to replace Tubby Smith
MINNEAPOLIS — When Norwood Teague took over as athletic director at Minnesota, he knew it would take a little time for him to get up to speed with all the intricacies of major college football.
Teague came from Virginia Commonwealth, which doesn't have a football team, and so immersing himself in the sport was one of his top priorities. One thing Teague did know, and know well, was basketball. He and associate Mike Ellis have long prided themselves on being plugged in to the coaching world and familiar with what is needed to identify quality coaches and build a strong program.
So when Teague made the bold decision to fire basketball coach Tubby Smith, he did so knowing that his first big hire at Minnesota was right in his wheelhouse.
"I mean, it's our job, or my job to conduct a search and I feel good about that," Teague said when he announced Smith's firing on Monday. "I feel like we've got a lot to sell."
When he was at VCU, Teague teamed with a largely unknown young coach Anthony Grant to get the program going. When Grant left for Alabama, Teague filled that opening with Shaka Smart, who has become one of the hottest commodities on the coaching market after leading the small school to the Final Four. Teague also was an administrator at basketball power North Carolina, helping to expand his circle of connections within the sport.
The process ramped up at VCU, where Teague and Ellis used the school's Villa 7 Consortium to expand their connections. The school started Villa 7 in 2004, bringing head coaches, assistant coaches and university administrators together for a glorified cocktail party that allowed connections to be made, resumes to be exchanged and mock interviews to be conducted.
Teague hired Smart after meeting him at Villa 7 gatherings, which morphed into must-attend events filled with keynote speakers that moved around the country. Other Villa 7 alumni who could be considered for the Gophers job included Marquette's Buzz Williams, Florida Gulf Coast's Andy Enfield and Butler's Brad Stevens, who would be considered an even longer shot than the highly coveted Smart.
"We are going to look for the right fit for the program," Teague said. "Doesn't have to be the candidate that everybody thinks we should get. It's going to be the right fit for our student athletes."
Former Timberwolves coach and Minnesota alum Flip Saunders is another possibility to replace Smith, a highly respected coach who helped lift the Golden Gophers out of the rubble created by an academic fraud scandal. Smith had the big name that can sell tickets and also ran a clean program, two necessities for Minnesota in the wake of the cheating that wiped the Final Four appearance in 1997 from the record books. And even though progress under Smith had clearly hit a wall in the previous two seasons and many of the team's players were failing to show the improvement expected as their careers carried on, firing him still proved to be a highly scrutinized decision.
Teague was criticized nationally for the decision, with several high-profile analysts and coaches essentially asking how dare a program such as Minnesota fire a coach with such an esteemed reputation. Those pundits and colleagues ignored Smith's 46-62 record in Big Ten play and the coaching staff's inability to make in-game adjustments.
Teague said he felt the program needed a fresh perspective, and that's something he's bringing to the table as well. With no strong roots in the state, Teague isn't buying into the long-bemoaned "limitations" that keep Minnesota from vaulting into the upper echelon of the Big Ten. Those around the program have long said the athletic department doesn't invest enough in the revenue-producing sports of football and men's basketball; that the university's academic standards are too rigorous to get some of the more talented recruits admitted; that the professional sports in town diminish the attention paid to the Gophers.
"If we live in the past, we are going to get drug down by the past," Teague said. "We have to look forward and we have to work hard while looking forward and be encouraged by that."
Teague is working to raise money to upgrade facilities, sees the university's location in a metropolitan area as an asset and has made big changes to support staff in an effort to get away from the "this is how we've always done it" mentality.
For the first time in a long time, someone is foisting real, demanding expectations on this program. Placing seventh in the Big Ten isn't enough. Winning one game in the NCAA tournament isn't enough. Settling won't be tolerated. That approach worked at VCU. Now it's time to see if it translates to Minnesota.
"It's my job to be to make decisions about the visions of the program and where we are going as far as our trajectory," Teague said. "And it was really a matter of the overall, where we were and where we wanted to go."
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