Go{pher} Broke

Tubby Smith: Economic savior or placebo?
While plausible concerns can be raised about Tim Brewster and the funding for the TCF Stadium, Maturi’s hiring of Orlando “Tubby” Smith to be the new Gopher men’s basketball coach is universally regarded as a masterstroke. Now 56, Smith has been the head coach of three different major college programs over the past fifteen seasons, and led his teams to at least twenty victories in all but two of those years. He won a national championship in 1998, and his career winning percentage, .733, places him in the top ten among active college basketball coaches. He came to Minnesota from the University of Kentucky, the winningest college basketball program in NCAA history. Gopher hoops fans are still pinching themselves over the notion that he will be roaming the sidelines at Williams Arena.

It was certainly no secret that after more than seven years, Dan Monson had the once-proud Gopher basketball program headed in the wrong direction. Last November 29, Clemson came into Williams and walloped Minnesota, 90-68, the Gophers’ fifth straight loss of the young season. Less than forty-eight hours later, Monson was fired. “As a big-time college athletic director I struggle between being an educator, which is my training and background, and being a businessman, which is a necessary part of this job,” Maturi says. “I kept Dan Monson on the job because I am an educator. I fired him because I am a businessman, and if I was a better businessman I would have fired him a year earlier.”

Given the more established and discerning fan base for Gopher basketball, Maturi decided he needed a “recognizable, big-name coach,” and trained his sights on former Gopher player and Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, now the head coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. But Saunders pulls down $5 million a year in Detroit, dwarfing Monson’s $750,000 annual salary. Maturi says he got permission from President Bruininks to offer Saunders a ten-year contract at $1.5 million a year. When Saunders eventually decided to stay put, Maturi realized he had a healthy chunk of change with which to pursue high-profile candidates. And he was hearing rumors that Smith was growing weary of constant criticism from Kentucky boosters.

At Kentucky, attaining twenty wins and an NCAA tournament appearance simply isn’t sufficient; only a serious national championship run will placate boosters. Through Smith’s agent, Maturi let it be known that if Tubby could simply keep doing in Minnesota what he has always done elsewhere, he would be hailed as a hero and fˆeted instead of flamed by the media and the alumni. The response from the agent was encouraging: Tubby was making $2.1 million in Kentucky and wasn’t going to take a $600,000 pay cut to come to Minnesota. Translation: Sweeten the pot and you just might land a whale of a basketball coach. In March, Smith signed a deal guaranteeing him $1.75 million a season for seven years; with additional incentives he can earn more than $2 million for a Big 10 championship and nearly $2.5 million if he bags a national championship.

Where Brewster glad-hands all comers and makes bold, overblown pronouncements in an effort to sell his program, Smith has maintained a decidedly low profile while preparing for his first season at the U. Reached by phone, he talks of the discipline, dedication, and sense of community that comes with being raised on a farm as one of seventeen children. “I think that discipline is the part that attracts people to want to play for me. They say, ‘Coach, how did you do it?’ And I say, ‘Son, it’s not easy, but if you are willing to pay the price and make sacrifices I can show you.’ I don’t worry about pressure from the community,” Smith snorts. “The person I have to satisfy is Tubby Smith and my expectations for myself are probably higher than anyone else’s.”

Maturi’s revamped athletic department should at the very least be dynamic enough to keep fans engaged in the short term. What Gopher fan doesn’t want to watch a confident coaching maestro like Smith ply his craft on the basketball court, or pull on a poncho and go cheer for the hometown maroon and gold in a brand-new outdoor stadium on a crisp autumn afternoon?

Yet there is a corollary that in its own way is equally beguiling: Would the University be better off, financially and perhaps even morally, if it scaled back its athletic ambitions and settled more often for the boring, the mediocre, the status quo? For example, Maturi pushed Dan Monson out the door in large part, he says, because revenues are down “a little more than a million dollars, [for Gopher basketball].” OK, but if Tubby Smith can earn nearly $2 million per season with attainable incentives and Monson was making only $750,000, doesn’t Tubby have to return the revenue streams back to the full-spigot levels they enjoyed under coach Clem Haskins or Jim Dutcher simply to break even with the Monson-era bottom line? Similarly, on the football front, the Metrodome is a horrible place to watch a sporting event and doesn’t provide the Gophers with any revenues from its suites, luxury boxes, parking ramps, and so forth. But it’s also rent- and debt-free. It doesn’t require students to pony up a fee every semester, or siphoning away $10 million each year from the general fund that might otherwise go toward health care or a new biomedical research complex on campus.

The profit-sharing arrangement used by the Big 10 Conference actually provides an even greater incentive for athletic departments to be conservative. Even if Brewster makes good on his vow to lead the Gophers to the Rose Bowl, Minnesota won’t receive the financial windfall you might expect. Bowl monies, like NCAA tournament monies, are pooled and divided up equally among the eleven Big 10 member schools. Thus Ohio State played for the national ch
ampionship in both football and men’s basketball last season, but received the same payout as the Gophers in fiscal year 2006—$1,916,619 in pooled football bowl revenue, and $1,241,312 in men’s NCAA basketball tournament monies. (Ohio State probably realized a windfall by raising ticket prices at their facilities and selling more logo-festooned apparel, but that will be at least slightly undercut by the large raises the coaching staffs will receive.) Broadcast media revenue is also pooled. The U’s share of the Big 10 Network’s payouts this year is $7.5 million. That’s fifty percent more money than Maturi’s rosy stadium scenario—without the risks of cost overruns and empty seats.

You could probably argue that the weaker or middling teams in the conference have an obligation to maintain the strength and integrity (and thus the value) of the Big 10 brand by fielding competitive programs. But too much parity actually penalizes the conference by depriving its dominant teams of the unblemished win-loss records necessary to play in the most lucrative bowls and tournaments. “I don’t think in my tenure we will ever really compare ourselves to the big three,” Maturi says, explaining that Ohio State spends approximately $100 million a year on athletics, while Michigan and Penn State are “in the eighties.” The Gophers spent $66 million in their last fiscal year, putting them sixth or seventh in the conference.

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