My oldest nephew graduated from the University of Minnesota and he still regrets being one of the students who chanted “Fire Mason” at a football game during the Glen Mason era. If he knew Tim Brewster would follow the veteran Mason he never would have opened his mouth and screamed those two words.
Monday on Twitter, I saw some people referencing Mason after it was announced that the university had fired Tubby Smith. Once again the school fired a veteran coach who had done a solid job but frustrated fans and media with befuddling losses and ultimately underachieving teams. These people wondered — or predicted — that Gopher fans would have the same regrets my nephew had about Mason.
Maybe that happens — and Gophers fans will really have flashbacks if the new head basketball coach is an unknown NBA assistant who talks a great game and refers to the fanbase in his opening press conference as Gophers Nation.
Still, it was probably time for Tubby and the Gophers to part ways, before Smith had to hear from one more frustrated 75-year-old fan in a maroon and gold sweater at Williams and before fans had to watch one more possession against a zone defense. Tubby had eyed various jobs over the years so it’s not like he was planning a 20-year career in Minnesota. And now the school can find a younger coach — whether he’s been leading his own program or serving as an assistant — who can excite the fans for a few months and finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
At the same time I would have been fine if Smith returned. We know what we would have gotten next year — a great nonconference season, some big home wins in conference play, some infuriating losses on the road and possibly an NCAA tournament berth. They would have won a game, maybe two and that would have been it. That’s not terrible — and history shows that’s about as good as it will probably get for the program. Every 10 or 15 years they can compete for a Big Ten title if the right mix of seniors or newcomers come together. This isn’t Indiana or Michigan State and that’s what many national pundits pointed out on Monday, as they reacted with disgust or disappointment that Minnesota would fire a coach who was in fact fairly successful.
But there were plenty of reasons to fire Tubby and now a new coach can take his shot at showing that there is more potential to the program. I don’t expect that to happen but I’m ready for a new coach and a new program. One of the first interview questions for any new candidate should center on what he’ll do when a star player picks up two fouls in the first half.
If the coach hesitates at all or doesn’t answer “I’ll leave him in there,” the interview should end immediately and he should be escorted back to the airport. In Tubby’s last game as a Gophers coach, he put a new twist on that maddening strategy by sitting Andre Hollins for way too long after he picked up a fourth foul midway through the second half. That’s no reason to lose a job but it was one of the things that upset Gophers fans, along with players who either regressed while on the team or thrived once they left it as a transfer. Against a zone, the Gophers often looked like what I imagine the first basketball team that ever faced a 2-3 looked like seven decades ago. The rotations could be odd, the road wins nonexistent.
Minnesota fans have probably given up on the football team ever achieving great or sustained success but we still feel the basketball program can reach that level. Perhaps that’s naive, based on the program’s history. Maybe the Gophers can’t finish at the very top of the Big Ten on a consistent basis. But the top half of the conference? That’s not being unrealistic or unfair.
And in six or seven years, the Gophers can try and find another coach to pull that off.