U names head coach

The men’s basketball team had been playing without a head coach since November.

Zach Eisendrath

The wait is over.

After almost four months of anticipation, the University has named former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith the 16th head coach in Minnesota men’s basketball history.

Smith, who had four more years remaining on his deal with the Wildcats, will officially be announced as the new leader of the Gophers at a noon press conference today at Williams Arena.

Athletics Director Joel Maturi said in early March that he hoped to get a new coach in place by the first week of April.

But with conference foes Michigan and Iowa opening head coaching spots in the last week, it became apparent the Gophers would have to strike quickly to get the man they coveted.

Since former coach Dan Monson was fired on Nov. 30, many names have been linked to the job, from Detroit Pistons’ coach Flip Saunders to Xavier coach Sean Miller, as early as yesterday.

But Smith wasn’t on any lists for the job, not because of his lack of coaching résumé, but likely because he wasn’t considered available for the Gophers.

The 55-year-old Smith led Kentucky, which is thought by many to be one of the few premier coaching jobs in all of college basketball, to a national championship in 1998. He has won five Southeastern Conference titles, as well as five SEC tournament titles, in 10 seasons at the helm of the Wildcats program.

But despite all his accomplishments, Smith has been under fire recently after failing to deliver Final Four appearances at a school with tremendous expectations for its basketball program – creating speculation that Smith is departing before possibly being fired.

The main criticism Smith received from Kentucky was his inability to recruit, but Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said that shouldn’t undermine his appointment.

“Minnesota is a different situation for him,” he said. “The Gophers have never been known as a hotbed as far as recruiting big-time players. His name recognition should help a lot, and it immediately gives the Gopher program national status.

“Personally, I think it’s a great hire for Minnesota. Tubby’s a man of character. It’s possible he wasn’t the best for Kentucky, but he’s a great hire to get.”

Meyer, who said he heard the University of Michigan had also been talking to Smith, said he thinks it will take Smith at least three years to get the Gophers back to the upper echelon of the Big Ten conference.

CBSsportsline.com columnist Gregg Doyel said he thinks it will take much longer for the Gophers to reach that status.

Doyel, who is known for his controversial columns, said he thinks Smith will be fired by 2012.

“I think he’s going to be a massive failure, unless he changes his ways – changes the way he hires his staff, changes the way he recruits.

“My view is he had everything at Kentucky. He had a top five job but couldn’t bring in elite talent. Now he goes to a bottom-five Big Ten school.”

The one thing both Meyer and Doyel agreed on, however, is that Smith’s son Saul who is projected to join Tubby Smith’s staff after a brief stint at Tennessee Tech, is a terrific hire.

“Saul is young and aggressive and just getting started as an assistant coach, doing a lot of leg work in-state,” Meyer said.

Doyel expressed similar sentiments.

“He’ll get more out of the talent there than (former coach Dan) Monson did and (interim coach Jim) Molinari did, because Tubby is really good with Xs and Os.”

But Minnesota basketball fans, after recovering from the shock of the announcement, appeared to be much more encouraged by the hire.

“I couldn’t be happier right now, civil engineering sophomore Lee Heidenson said. “We need somebody legitimate to come in here and turn this program around. So I couldn’t be happier about the situation.”

First-year student Kevin Ewald said he thinks it will only take a year or two for Smith to rejuvenate the program after a year with the most losses in school history.

“I think he will be able to recruit a lot better and he will be able to change the program around,” Ewald said.