The Minnesota Golden Gophers entered the season with high hopes in terms of contention for a Big Ten title and an NCAA Tournament run, but those aspirations continue to evaporate after a disappointing loss to Iowa last Sunday. Minnesota has now lost seven of their last 10 games, dropping their record to 6-7 in-conference and 18-8 overall.
A tough game is on the horizon Wednesday night against Ohio State, but barring a complete collapse over their remaining five games there is little doubt the Gophers will make the NCAA Tournament. The bigger concern is another late season swoon by the team, and there is real speculation about the job status of coach Tubby Smith.
Of course there is the significant issue of Smith’s $2.5 million buyout along with the cost to hire a new coach, but athletic director Norwood Teague may be willing to make a bold decision and dismiss Smith after the season. It’s also possible Smith would take a coaching job elsewhere, which would ease the financial burden of firing him.
Could Teague turn to a Minnesota alum with NBA coaching experience if he decides to let Smith go?
Minnesota sports fans are certainly familiar with Flip Saunders, as he not only played for the Gophers in the mid-1970’s but also coached the Minnesota Timberwolves from 1995-2005. His tenure was the most successful in the history of the franchise, with playoff berths in all eight of Saunders’ full seasons at the helm and a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2004.
Saunders also had a successful stint as coach of the Detroit Pistons, leading the team to a division title and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in all three of his seasons in the Motor City. But he was fired immediately after that third run to the conference finals in 2008, and after sitting out a year was hired as coach of the Washington Wizards in April of 2009.
Saunders did not reach anywhere near his prior level of success in Washington, with a 51-130 record over two-plus seasons before being relieved of his duties in January of 2012. He was hired as an advisor by the Boston Celtics during the 2012 playoffs, and has been working as an analyst for ESPN this season.
Saunders does not have any college coaching experience, but it’s worth wondering if he would have interest in returning to his alma mater as coach. He surely will not publicly comment about a job that is not currently open, but it may not take much for the local media to make a connection and begin to speculate. Saunders would bring an offensive acumen that Gophers’ fans have not seen during Smith’s tenure, and players like Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins could flourish under his guidance. If Smith is indeed let go or chooses to leave for another job, Saunders needs to be on Teague’s list of candidates.
Brad Berreman is a contributing writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.