Tubby Smith Was Not Born in A Barn

Categories: Gophers

Gopher’s men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith chose a pretty big stage from which to send his latest unsubtle message to the University. In the last paragraph of a fluffy article in Wednesday’s New York Times preciously entitled “Few Expectations but More Enjoyment,” Smith was quoted this way:

How much longer can you play in the Barn? I know it’s sacrilegious to mention that, but it’s going to be 80 years old next year. How many 80-year-old buildings are still being played in? I’m sure it’s a long-term project, but what do you do in the meantime? We can’t play here forever. For now, we can make this a great environment, which it has been in the past.

(Incidentally, the piece contains a hilarious and depressing peak at the pre-feminist world of coaching marriages. The Times precedes a quote by Smith’s wife, Donna, by saying, “Donna Smith said the change had been good for both of them. [Italics mine] ‘He looks better,’ she said. ‘He’s having more fun. He’s more relaxed, and he loves what he’s doing.’" Sure sounds like they’re “both” really enjoying themselves.)

Arenaball

Now, this is a pretty cavalier thing for the new coach to say. It’s not for nothing that the Barn sports the most significant home court advantage in college basketball. Even when it’s half-full, the place becomes unbelievably loud at the slightest sign of life from the home team and opponents have described the experience of playing there as akin to drowning or suffocation. It’s one of those really beautifully strange, asymmetric athletic facilities that don't really get built anymore, buildings that call to mind grainy images of thousands of men's hats rising in unison. Most of all, it is really an electric place to watch a basketball game.

It is true that Williams Arena is nearly 80 years old, but it has been renovated four times in the last 17 years (including a $2.3 million remodeling as recently as 2003). The place is old, but it is hardly crumbling; its seating capacity is competitive with other Big Ten schools; the sight lines are amazing almost anywhere you sit—why again are we going to tear down? Tubby has hinted before that the he’s expecting a new practice facility, and, from a purely basketball perspective, this is understandable and probably necessary. But for a guy who spends much of his media time boasting of his selfless desire to integrate into his new community—and who has won exactly zero Big Ten games while taking home $2 million a year of the U’s money (which I think is pretty much on par with most professors’ salaries, right?)—the offhand suggestion that the University tear down a state landmark is, I’d say, a touch vulgar.

By Any Means Necessary

But, see, here we’re getting into the big tradeoffs of hiring a top-tier basketball coach like Tubby Smith. As you probably know, in 1998 the Gophers, under coach Clem Haskins were caught out in one of the worst academic scandals ever in college sports. Basically, many of the players, apparently with the coaching staff's blessing and encouragement, begged out of writing their own papers, leaving the drudgery to a matronly tutor. One such paper, turned in by Gophers’ forward Courtney James, who was already in a bit of trouble for hitting his girlfriend with a phone, was memorably titled, “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: The Same or Different?” Remember, this is ostensibly better than whatever Courtney would’ve written on his own. (The answer is ‘the same,’ right?)

Now, this is all purely speculation on my part, but my thought is that the University knew that in order to save face, it was going to have to go small time for a while: to hire a coach, they knew would run a completely clean program; to recruit players who they knew would at least cover the bases academically; to suck for like ten years. Well, Dan Monson was that coach, and suck they did. But now penance has been paid (although the “funny” thing about all of this is that even when the Gophers have been pretty bad, their team graduation rate has hovered at about 40%) and the Smith hiring seems to show that winning basketball games has again become one of the U’s priorities. Now, Tubby Smith has been a fairly upstanding guy wherever he’s been and I have no doubt that he genuinely has the best interest of his players at heart. But the fact that he, a basketball coach, is now in a position to make multi-million dollar demands on a publicly funded university only shows that the business of winning basketball games grossly compromises the mission of an academic institution. I’m pretty sure I’ll have more to say about this next week.

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