None of the upset losses Minnesota suffered in Big Ten play last season were anywhere near as surprising as the one its coach endured on Wednesday at a different type of court.
Tubby Smith and Minnesota are on the hook for $1.25 million after a jury determined the coach wrongfully led then-Oklahoma State assistant Jimmy Williams to believe he'd been hired at Minnesota in 2007. Williams resigned from his $200,000-a-year post at Oklahoma State only to find out the Gophers wouldn't hire him because of previous NCAA violations they discovered on his record.
Although it's difficult to understand how a jury could rule in Williams' favor when a written contract had yet to be drawn up, this episode still represents another setback in what has been an up-and-down three-year tenure at Minnesota for Smith. Yes, he's led the Gophers to back-to-back NCAA tournament berths for the first time in 15 years, but oddly a coach often lauded for his character has endured some unexpected trouble off the court.
Two of the four members of his highly touted 2009 recruiting class left the program without ever donning a Minnesota jersey as a result of legal trouble. A third transferred to Cal after an underwhelming freshman season. And Smith's starting point guard, Al Nolen, was ruled academically ineligible for the final two months of last season.
Those issues have apparently soured some Minneapolis media members on a coach who was touted as a huge upgrade when he replaced Dan Monson three years ago. Writes Star-Tribune columnist Jim Souhan in Thursday's edition:
The hiring of Smith, even if it was really Smith doing the hiring, offered the promise of on-court success without embarrassment, the promise of clean victories and a classy power coach in whom we could believe.
Smith has returned the basketball program to relevance, and to the NCAA tournament. He has not, however, become the ambassador for the program or the university that we assumed he would be. He has not been as visible or as charming as many of us expected.
His program might have already peaked.
Souhan is probably going a little overboard here in his criticism of Smith, but the fact remains that the former Kentucky coach has not built up the goodwill in Minneapolis that you'd have expected by now.
With the Big Ten stronger than ever next season and Minnesota getting hit hard by transfers and graduation this spring, another NCAA tournament berth may be difficult for the Gophers to obtain.
That's why Smith better curtail this trend of off-the-court issues because if the program also isn't winning, it's going to look a whole lot worse.