basketball

When evaluating Ben Johnson’s Gophers future, both patience and perspective are required

A video of former Gophers football coach Tim Brewster, now an assistant with Colorado, provided a reminder of how little sense he ever made — in conversation or as the leader of a Big Ten program.

Brewster is evidence that Minnesota sports were relentlessly dysfunctional in the late 2000s and early 2010s, with the Gophers hiring Coach Brew and the Timberwolves hiring General Manager David Kahn.

Brewster and Kahn might have obscured a similarly disastrous decision: the University of Minnesota hiring Norwood Teague as athletic director in 2012.

Teague would resign following multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Before he was disgraced, he allowed his arrogance as a supposed basketball guru to prompt one of the worst decisions in modern Minnesota sports history, right up there with hiring Brewster or Kahn.

He fired Tubby Smith.

In 2013, the Gophers men advanced in the NCAA tournament for the first time since Clem Haskins reached the Final Four in 1997, when Smith coached them past UCLA.

Teague immediately fired him after a loss to Florida two days later.

That decision could have been justified, had Teague brought in an excellent coach. Instead, he overrated his influence in the basketball community, missed out on all of his preferred candidates, and settled for Richard Pitino, who had one year of experience as a head coach, at little Florida International.

Teague’s decision to fire Smith and his inability to hire a power coach led the Gophers program to where it is today. Ben Johnson was hired to replace Pitino because, once again, the Gophers couldn’t hire a power coach, so they hired someone with roots in the program who was expected to recruit the program into competitiveness.

Johnson might do that eventually. Dennis Evans and Cam Christie, his two best recruits to date, will arrive next year to team up with Dawson Garcia, Jamison Battle and other intriguing young players.

Waiting and hoping are currently Minnesota’s best options.

The Gophers are 20-28 under Johnson, and 5-23 in the Big Ten. They lack the talent, size and depth to compete in the conference.

If you consider this disastrous, you are doing what Teague did in 2012: overrating what this program is or ever was.

Gophers men’s basketball has been generally lousy, and when the program hasn’t been lousy, it has gotten caught cheating.

This feels like a low point for the program, being 1-7 in the Big Ten with a good Indiana team coming to Williams Arena on Wednesday. The Gophers are drawing small crowds and making a habit of failing to reward those who show up.

Let’s review how this program got to this point:

  • Haskins was an ideal coach for Minnesota, except for the cheating, which got him fired and prompted Minnesota to hire Dan Monson.
  • Monson was hired to win without cheating. He never seemed comfortable in Minnesota and eventually resigned, having taken the Gophers to the NCAA tournament once in eight seasons.
  • Smith was hired and took the Gophers to the tournament in his second, third and sixth seasons before Teague fired him. That performance felt like a disappointment, given Smith’s Hall of Fame resume. Now it should be remembered as Gophers hoops nirvana.
  • Teague hired Pitino because he couldn’t find anyone else to take the job.
  • When Pitino was fired, Minnesota again had trouble landing an established coach and chose to hire an excellent recruiter in Johnson.
  • Johnson started his career by winning 10 of his first 11 games. He has lost 27 of his last 37.

If this were an established, winning program, Johnson would be fired. But if this were an established, winning program, Johnson would not have been hired.

Minnesota’s brain trust should avoid the mistake Teague made, and acknowledge that this is a traditionally mediocre program that needs to recruit better players. Johnson has already started doing that.

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