Jan 9, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Tubby Smith during the second half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Assembly Hall. Minnesota defeated Illinois 84-67. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Tubby Smith leaves Gophers in better shape than he inherited

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Mar 2, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe (32) hugs head coach Tubby Smith after getting pulled from the game in the second half against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Williams Arena. The Gophers won 73-44. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Monday’s firing of Tubby Smith was difficult to swallow for fans of Gopher basketball — but it was the right decision.

In six years as head coach, Smith compiled a record of 124-81 (.605) and led the Gophers to five post-season appearances.

But on the other hand, Minnesota’s record in the Big Ten was a degenerate 46-62 (.426) during Smith’s tenure.

While his bipolar record could sway either way as justification for his departure, it was how Smith carried himself that I will miss the most.

I’ve only met Tubby Smith once — at a polling station on Election Day in 2009.

I walked into the polling place as a reporter, on a mission to interview the election judge. And as I walked in, Smith was walking out by himself.

As a reporter, I had no right to stop and interview Smith after he had just voted — in fact, I shouldn’t have talked to anyone leaving a booth — but he didn’t mind.

Smith stopped and talked with me about the election and about basketball. I let him go after a short interview, shook his hand and wished him good luck on the upcoming season. He smiled, thanked me, and went on his way.

I’ve interviewed a fair share of high-profile sources, but the way Smith stopped and chatted with a reporter after he just completed his civic duty gave me the utmost respect for him and I mourn his departure from Minnesota.

But all-in-all, Coaches work until they retire or are fired and this was simply the end of the line.

It’s not an easy job by any means, but even the pressure from the fan base in the last few years couldn’t push Smith into a tirade that high-profile coaches are susceptible to.

Since the fans started calling for Smith’s head, I’ve pondered if Minnesota has had a better coach than Smith in recent memory.

Clem Haskins is the one coach that comes to mind, but half of his career in Minnesota is unofficial thanks to the cheating scandal.

Smith was the best coach Minnesota has ever hired. His consistent winning ways in six seasons are unmatched by any other coach in the program’s history, but it simply wasn’t enough.

Had Athletic Director Norwood Teague decided to keep Smith through his extension  the Gophers would have remained in the bounds of mediocrity of the Big Ten Conference for who knows how long.

Sometimes, the good guy needs to step down for the greater good.

Smith has certainly made his mark on Gopher basketball and has left the program in better shape than he inherited, but Teague is looking for a coach that can take the program to the moon — a goal not too far fetched for a university that has a larger student population than some cities.

As Minnesota is emerging with more and more prep stars, Teague needs to clamp down on the in-state talent as it is literally in Minnesota’s backyard. Replacing Smith was the first step to slowing the exodus of sure-fire stars like Tyus Jones and Rashad Vaughn.

Jones and Vaughn wouldn’t lose any sleep if they decided to leave Minnesota for programs like Duke or Kentucky — but replacing Smith has certainly caught the attention of recruits everywhere.

Bringing in a Shaka Smart or Flip Saunders would rejuvenate a fan base that are sick and tired of being a tier below conference opponents like Wisconsin or Michigan year-after-year. It would also be in the best interest of the university.

Teague knows this and I’m confident this has been a plan he devised since the first day he assumed the role.

Whoever Teague introduces as the next coach will be a grand slam hire in Teague’s mind — and it should be the same way for fans.

As the Gophers move on from Tubby Smith, we will undoubtedly remember him in a positive light. We will remember him not as a coach caught in mediocrity, but as a human being that truly defined Minnesota Nice.

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Tags: Basketball Gophers Minnesota Minnesota Golden Gophers Rodney Williams Tubby Smith

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