Four years ago, Minnesota and Michigan basketball were in similar places. Both programs had the stench of former impropriety about them, though the Gophers’ problems were more recent than those of the Wolverines. Each was turning to a new head coach that had enjoyed success elsewhere, with John Beilein moving from West Virginia to Michigan and Tubby Smith moving from Kentucky to Minnesota. Both coaches were looking at difficult transitions, but the payoffs were potentially large; Beilein had the chance to resurrect a long-dormant Michigan program, and Smith could revitalize one of the long-underperforming teams of the Big Ten.
Which team made the better hire seemed obvious, until early February or so. Minnesota made the NCAA tournament twice in Smith’s first three years, while Michigan had made the tournament only once (and disappointed quite badly in 2010). The 2011 Gophers were cruising to their third consecutive strong season, while Michigan lost several early conference games and seemed headed to the second straight awful year.
How much we learn in a month: Minnesota nosedived to a 6–12 Big Ten season, didn’t win a game in the Big Ten tournament, and failed to make even the NIT. Michigan went 8–3 to end the conference season, made the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, firebombed Tennessee to end Bruce Pearl’s major conference head coaching career, and gave #1 seed Duke a scare in the Round of 32. Next year, Michigan will return everyone (barring unexpected transfers or the unlikely loss of Darius Morris to the NBA draft), while Minnesota is left trying to replace Blake Hoffarber, Al Nolen, and (transferring) Colton Iverson, among others. Seldom does a debate that looks so settled in one direction get answered so definitively in the other direction in so short a time.
The failures of the Gophers were obvious and do not require much elaboration. After Al Nolen’s injury, no one was left to handle the ball, and Hoffarber was forced into the point, where he never looked comfortable. Ralph Simpson and Colton Iverson failed to take steps forward in their junior years and could not learn to defend without fouling. And Minnesota has experienced an exodus of players, with Iverson and Devoe Joseph only the two most recent during Smith’s tenure. With no depth, Minnesota faltered once adversity struck.
It would be tempting to say that this is the new normal: Minnesota rose, fell, and failed, and now there is no hope. Then, I would say “no! Look at Michigan, after all, the doppelganger to the East.” I’d draw a parallel once again and wrap up the essay saying “who knows what the future may hold” and fin.
As tempting as that is, there’s a pattern that’s repeated itself the past few years at Minnesota that worries me. Every offseason, Smith is rumored to be five seconds away from jumping at some marginal but higher paying job elsewhere. Ignoring the wisdom or foolishness of such a move for Tubby, this is no way to build a program in Minnesota. If Smith succeeds, everyone anticipates he’ll be on the first train to Stillwater or Corvallis or Tallahassee or whatever. If he fails, he’s all Minnesota’s, because no one else will want him. Minnesota gets none of the upside, except perhaps only the successful season that launches Smith elsewhere.
Thus, the dilemma of the long-suffering program: hire the small-name coach grateful for the position, or the big name coach with a history of success? Of course, the small-name coach might leave too, but usually that’s because they’ve built a successful program in their place. Butler will be in a good position when Brad Stevens leaves, just as they were when Todd Lickliter and Thad Matta left. Big name coaches trade just as much on their prior as their current success, and athletic directors will always see these types of coaches as “safer” hires (that is, hires less likely to cost them their jobs). Thus, Shaka Smart will have to prove himself a year or two more; if Tubby Smith’s Minnesota had made the Final Four, the chances he would be in St. Paul the following year would be approximately 0.005%.
This is a problem few of the other Big Ten programs seem likely to face, except for the historic dregs. Tom Crean will not leave Indiana, unless he is asked to leave by security. Tom Izzo is not leaving Michigan State, nor Bo Ryan Wisconsin. It looks like Painter will remain permanently at Purdue. And Beilein, the Smith foil, looks as though he hopes to finish his career in Ann Arbor. Surely that will matter to Michigan fans, and the Michigan program, much more than a year or two of immediate success.