Minnesota Gopher athletics tarnished by mismanagement

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jimmy Williams' victorious lawsuit against Tubby Smith and the University of Minnesota on Wednesday isn't as damaging as it is revealing.

Jim Souhan
Jim Souhan

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jimmy Williams' victorious lawsuit against Tubby Smith and the University of Minnesota on Wednesday isn't as damaging as it is revealing.

The case reminds us of the rich tradition of Gopher basketball scandals, the arrogance of power coaches, the basketball program's 40-year slump, the sorry state of the University of Minnesota's revenue sports, and the cost of employing an athletic director who doubles as a naive bystander.

Gophers AD Joe Maturi oversees fine volleyball, baseball, wrestling and track teams. That's not his job. His job, as the boss of a Big Ten athletic department, is to run revenue programs that bring glory and money to the university. Williams' successful suit is the latest sign that Maturi is overmatched, that he exercises little control where control is most needed.

Court documents reveal that Maturi didn't want Williams hired at least in part because he was concerned about the possibility of adverse media reaction to the hiring of a coach who had been involved in NCAA violations as a Gophers assistant under Bill Musselman and Jim Dutcher in the 1970s and 1980s. Worrying about media reaction is a terrible way to make a decision. A real AD would have hired or rejected Williams based on his life's work and reputation, not on a fear of criticism.

Real ADs are judged by the successes and failures of their revenue sports. In this way, too, Maturi is failing.


He hired Tim Brewster, who has made a mess of the football program.

He got out of Smith's way when Smith decided he wanted to coach at Minnesota, and the Williams case reminds us that power coaches like Smith too often act like emperors, not employees.

Maturi also has done nothing to halt the slide of Don Lucia's once-proud hockey program.

While the decline of the hockey program is most shocking, it is the basketball program that has become the university's biggest embarrassment. It is the basketball program that is responsible for the worst moments in recent university history, from the Ohio State brawl to the rape charges in Madison to the most sordid case of academic fraud ever uncovered.

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.

It turns out Smith looks better on paper than in person. His resume is impeccable. His work in Dinkytown is spotty.

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. And, in the attempted hiring of Williams, he did so little due diligence that he didn't know about Williams' past involvement in scandals.


Smith is a dramatic improvement over Dan Monson because his teams usually play hard, usually play strong defense. But the notion that he would bring in a new caliber of national recruit who would transform the program has proved bogus. In fact, his best recruits -- Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe -- have proved to be his most problematic recruits. There is still no certainty that either will ever play in Williams Arena.

On the court, his offenses are erratic and few of his players have demonstrated improvement. Off the court, Smith has acted like the quintessential power coach, demanding a new practice facility, refusing to quash rumors that he is looking for another job . . . and offering jobs to assistant coaches without involving his boss in the process.

The five most important positions involving the University of Minnesota athletic department are filled with men ill-suited to elevating Gophers sports beyond the gravitational pull of mediocrity.

The university president, Robert Bruininks, is far too satisfied with Maturi's laissez-faire approach to his revenue programs. The president should demand more from the position, and the athletic department.

The athletic director, Maturi, behaves more like a cheerleader for the cross-country team than the boss of the high-priced basketball coach.

The football coach, Brewster, got Maturi alone in a hotel room during the interview process and sold him a bill of goods that any intelligent Gophers fan has since rejected.

The hockey coach, Lucia, has crashed a program that should glide on auto-pilot.

If we want to consider women's basketball a revenue sport -- because it briefly was headed in that direction -- then Maturi's tenure looks even worse.


The women's basketball coach, Pam Borton, has helped guide the team back to the days of small crowds and low expectations, ever since five starting players decided they didn't want to play for her anymore.

The university can afford to pay Williams for Smith's negligence. The university can't afford many more years of mismanagement and under-management, not of the revenue programs that should enrich and represent the entire university.

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