One day after Ben Howland was fired after consistently winning at UCLA, Tubby Smith has been told to seek employment elsewhere by the University of Minnesota. While UCLA has a long tradition of excellence, the Gophers have reached the Final Four only once in school history, and that achievement was forfeited along with six years of victories thanks to an academic scandal under former coach Clem Haskins. Of the eight NCAA Tournament trips Minnesota has made, and the NCAA still recognizes, Smith was the helm for four of them. But after 124 wins over six years Smith is out.
Everywhere Smith has coached success has followed. In four seasons at Tulsa he twice reached the Sweet 16. Over two years at Georgia, Smith led the Bulldogs to two NCAA tournaments including a trip to the Sweet 16. At Kentucky, Smith won the National Championship in his first season, amassed a record of 263-83, won 20 games in each of his 10 years, and won 30 games twice. He has more than 500 career wins, and a career winning percentage of just under 70-percent.
In a basketball history that dates back to the late 1800's, Minnesota has won 20 games or more 15 times. Twelve of the 15 are still counted by the NCAA. Five of the 12 are during the last six years when Smith was the coach. His 60.4-percent winning rate at Minnesota is the best the school has had in two decades.
Critics will point to Smith's 46-62 record in Big 10 play, and the way the team finished this season. After starting the year 15-1, Minnesota lost 12 of its final 18 games. At Kentucky, the story was similar. After winning a championship in his first season, the Cats had great success until Smith's final two years. After consistently winning or finishing among the top of the SEC for eight seasons, Kentucky went 9-7 in league play in each of Smith's last two years, and were bounced in the NCAA Tournament after just one victory each season.
Minnesota beat UCLA in this year's NCAA Tournament before losing to Florida with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. However, comparing Kentucky and Minnesota is not fair. The Wildcats sell more than 20,000 seats per game in a state where basketball and horse racing are all that matter. With a history of national championships, winning and doing so consistently at the highest level is achieved at all costs. Minnesota last won a Big 10 regular season title that wasn't stripped in 1982. They have never fairly been to the Final Four. They just fired a guy who has had as much success as anyone in recent memory at the school, and had one of the best sustained runs in team history.
If Minnesota is able to hire Shaka Smart, or another young, up-and-coming coach who has proven the ability to take a team to the NCAA Tournament consistently, and gone to the Final Four, so be it. If they fail to land Smart, Brad Stevens, or somebody else with a proven track record, they will enter next year with a coach no better than the one they are paying $2.5 million not to lead. Ben Howland is available. He may be Minnesota's best option.