With the dismissal of Tubby Smith as the head basketball coach for the Minnesota Gophers, rumors are already beginning to circulate about possible replacements for the departed leader. Some of the obvious names that have come up are VCU coach Shaka Smart, Butler coach Brad Stevens and Alabama coach Anthony Grant.
Grant and Smart are placed on the list because of their close connection with new Gophers’ Athletic Director Norwood Teague. One name that has also surfaced—that I find the most intriguing option and also the best long-term fit for the Gophers—is Flip Saunders.
Teague came to the Gophers’ after a successful stint as VCU’s athletic director and has begun to put his stamp on the Gopher’s athletic programs. Teague has been credited with hiring, relatively unknown, coaches like Grant and Smart and watching them turn into stellar and highly coveted coaches.
There has been plenty of smoke and rumors to suggest that Smart is highest on the Gophers’ wish list as possible replacements for Smith. Do I blame the team for going after Smart? No way! Smart is clearly one of the best—if not the best—coaching candidates available and he has the charisma and teaching ability to turn a program into a perennial contender on the national scene.
The Gophers would be fortunate and thrilled to get a coach of his caliber and I would, personally, be in awe; however, I do not foresee Smart leaving VCU for the Gophers. Smart seems to like being the sought after coach and also seems to like what he is building at VCU. Why would he want to leave that for the Gophers? Two words can answer that question for you: money talks. Just because Smart may be the best coach available, that doesn’t mean he would be the right coach for the Gophers.
While Smart may be the preferred choice for the Gophers, Saunders is the correct choice. Saunders is an alumnus of the university and first got his coaching career started as part of the Minnesota Timberwolves back in the 1990s. He is still revered and held in high regards around media and sports analysts around the state of Minnesota and has been an active supporter of Gophers’ athletics since he graduated.
Saunders has the pedigree and resume to be a successful coach at whatever level he coaches in. He has taken many teams to the playoffs as head coach in the NBA and also has an established rapport with many of the current and past Gophers’ athletes. This will definitely help improve moral around the program, which has been reportedly suffering during the latter stages of Smith’s tenure.
Most importantly, Saunders would give the Gophers their best opportunity to land the big-time recruits that are currently in Minnesota that consist of Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis. While Smith was in charge, landing even one of those recruits seemed like a longshot. However, under Saunders, the team has a strong chance at landing at least two from the list mentioned above.
It was rumored around the Minnesota State basketball tournament over the weekend that Jones stated he would commit to the Gophers if Saunders was their head coach. If that wasn’t enough, Saunders himself was in attendance—and has been at many of Jones’ games this season—alongside Tom Izzo.
The future of the Gophers’ basketball program relies on the commitments of these three players. If the team can land one, that would be good for the program. If they can land two, it would be great. If by some stroke of a miracle they can land all three, it could be historic. Saunders gives the university the best chance of landing these recruits because he is the best salesman for the university out of all of the candidates available. Why is he the best? The reason is simple: because he was a Gophers’ athlete himself, knows what the program is all about and can relate to when times were good for Gophers’ basketball because he played during that time.
Saunders may not be the “flashy” hire that some people are looking for as the next coach of the Gophers, but he is the right man for the job. It is said that Saunders would take the job if he were offered the position; so the question I ask athletic director Teague is this: what are you waiting for?