When Tubby Smith became head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers in March of 2007, he brought with him the name recognition of having been at the University of Kentucky and winning a national title in 1998. In a word, he brought hope to a basketball program that sorely needed that kind of spark.
Through his first five full seasons, the promise attached to Smith’s hiring largely went unfulfilled. Zero NCAA Tournament game wins in two appearances. Back-to-back 6-12 records in Big Ten play in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, and zero times with better than a 9-9 record in conference play overall. Transfers and injuries that have exposed depth issues on the roster, which by connection have exposed some shortcomings in recruiting. There was the shining moment of last year’s run to the final game of the NIT, but that followed another dismal regular season finish.
Despite that on-court underachievement and having two years left on his contract, Smith got a three-year contract extension last July to keep him under contract through the 2016-2017 season. Still, is it possible Smith will be gone after this season if the team fails to meet even the most modest of expectations, like winning an NCAA Tournament game?
As is often the case when considering firing a coach of a major college program, particularly in basketball and football, firing Smith would carry financial implications for the university. If Smith’s contract is terminated before April of 2016 he would be owed a $2.5 million buyout. He also can’t be fired without cause during the season as part of the extension that was agreed upon last summer.
Frankly, I think Smith’s agent isn’t being paid nearly enough by his client if he persuaded the school to agree to some of the terms of that contract extension. I won’t list all of the details, but the deal essentially further rewards Smith for leading the team to levels of success that seemed built into the expectations when he was hired.
The Golden Gophers had an excellent start to this season, but they have again floundered during conference play, losing five of their last seven games to drop their record in the Big Ten to 5-5 and 17-6 overall with eight games left in the regular season.
The question going forward may be Smith’s desire to coach the entire length of his current contract. He will turn 62 in June, and seems to have increasing difficulty connecting with and getting the most out of his players. If he is forced to make changes to his assistant coaches, perhaps most notably firing his son Saul, the senior Smith may simply grow frustrated and resign. I don’t see that happening, since Smith is very well compensated and has some built-in job security, but that is a possibility that can’t be completely ruled out.
In any case, it would be surprising to see Smith fired after the season due to the finances involved, even if he has a growing reputation as a big-name, underachieving coach. His team continues to reflect that underachiever label, which looks like something Gophers fans will have to stay accustomed to for awhile.
Brad Berreman is a contributing writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.