Tubby has Minnesota back on conference, NCAA map

By Jeremy Werner

The Minnesota Golden Gophers dug themselves a hole, one they seemingly couldn’t burrow themselves out of.

An NCAA investigation discovered former Gophers head coach Clem Haskins paid an academic counselor $3,000 to write more than 400 pieces of coursework for about 20 players from 1994 to 1998. Consequently, the Big Ten Conference stripped Minnesota of all its records from the 1993-94 to 1998-99 seasons, including its 1997 Final Four appearance.

Coming off a first-round loss to Michigan in last year’s Big Ten Tournament, the program was in shambles.

The Golden Gophers lost a school-record 22 games in 2006-07 and failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in eight seasons. Minnesota finished in the top half of the Big Ten just once (2004-05) since Haskins’ resignation in 2000.

Not exactly a great sales pitch for recruits.

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But when Tubby Smith resigned from Kentucky and took the head coaching job at Minnesota a little more than two weeks after the Gophers’ 9-22 finish last March, the program became much more marketable.

Smith immediately brought excitement to the ebbing program, but the quick results he has brought were largely unexpected. The Golden Gophers (15-7, 5-5 Big Ten), who sit at sixth place in the Big Ten standings, host the Illini on Tuesday and are just three games away from doubling last season’s win total.

Smith resigned from Kentucky amid criticisms that he was not living up to the program’s lofty expectations.

After winning the NCAA Championship in his first season at the helm in 1998, Smith and the Wildcats failed to make the Final Four for nine straight seasons. The streak is the longest in school history, although the team did make three Elite Eight and two additional Sweet Sixteen appearances during Smith’s tenure. Some even began to call Smith “10-loss Tubby” for his five seasons of 10 losses or more – a no-no in Lexington.

Smith’s resignation was the best thing for both programs, as Billy Gillispie seems to have rekindled the excitement at Kentucky, as the Wildcats are second in the SEC East and have commitments from two of ESPN’s top-33 prospects from the class of 2008.

Meanwhile, Smith has put together one of Minnesota’s best recruiting classes in the past decade, one ESPN rates as the 19th best class of 2008. The group is headlined by centers Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, son of three-time College Player of the Year and former NBA No. 1 pick Ralph Sampson. Smith has even crossed the border to pick up Devoe Joseph, one of the top foreign recruits, from Ontario, Canada.

Smith’s Golden Gophers have not been able to defeat the Big Ten’s elite due to a lack of talent, but they have won the games they should win, showing the poise that is the backbone of every successful program.

Smith is teaching his players what it takes to win – a theme Ron Zook brought to the Illinois football program.

The Gophers are 9-3 at Williams Arena – affectionately called “The Barn” – which has once again established itself as a raucous venue as Minnesota becomes a legit Big Ten contender.

Smith not only gives Minnesota some credibility, but also provides the Big Ten with another program that could become an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, sooner rather than later.

Minnesota lacks the roster strength to make a significant dent in the postseason this year, but the era of Tubby has brought a shining light to the dark hole – one the Gophers’ basketball program thought it could not dig itself out of.

Jeremy Werner is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].