Gophers begin shortlist search of candidates

March 25, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Shortly after announcing the firing of men's basketball coach Tubby Smith, University of Minnesota athletics director Norwood Teague said he would be responsible for leading the coaching search, along with senior members of his staff and the school's president's office.

There will be no search firm aiding the Gophers as they look to find a coaching with the ability to further the program, the responsibility Smith was assigned when he was a high-profile hire from Kentucky in 2007 and the aspect he never finished in Minnesota.

Perhaps Teague's reluctance in hiring a search firm is because he has candidates in mind already.

Teague is relying on his strengths as an athletic director, along with his associate AD Mike Ellis, the two known most for their connections to basketball, specifically when they were together at Virginia Commonwealth, where basketball is the biggest revenue generating sport without a Division I football program.

"I feel that myself and our senior staff, with our network, will be able to find a terrific coach for the future," Teague said.

The name that immediately pops to the forefront is VCU's current men's basketball coach Shaka Smart, who took the Rams to the Final Four in 2011. No doubt Smart will be receiving a call -- or already has -- from Teague, who wouldn't reveal any names Monday, but said he will be talking candidates locally and nationally. Teague said he had not had conversations with any coaches about replacing Smith as of Monday afternoon.

But Teague, who took the Gophers AD job on April 22, 2012, said he will work quickly, but refused to put a timeline to his decision. He has his list to work from, and likely feels confident in his approach.

"You always have a shortlist," Teague said. "You always have people that you have in mind. Some are realistic, some are unrealistic, but I have a list in mind. We'll work that and we'll get a terrific coach."

The list has to begin with Smart, who's taken VCU to the NCAA tournament in four of his five seasons as the Rams coach. But it won't be easy to pry Smart away either. Teague convinced Smart to stay at VCU after the Final Four run in 2011 and he'd be the hottest name among mid-major coaches looking to make a jump. Perhaps not coincidentally, Smith's firing comes soon after UCLA fired coach Ben Howland and reported interested in Smart.

Yet, Teague's "shortlist" might have several intriguing names. Locally, former NBA Minnesota Timberwolves coach and former Gophers' player Flip Saunders could be a candidate. Saunders has been out of coaching since being fired by the Washington Wizards on Jan. 24, 2012. Former VCU and current Alabama coach Anthony Grant could also hear his name as part of the search, having ties with Teague.

Among the other hot names are Marquette's Buzz Williams, whose team just made the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, who helped turn Iowa State's program around, has back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and is a former Timberwolves player himself, and Villanova's Jay Wright, who also has a Final Four run under his belt with the Wildcats.

And Teague isn't shooting low in his expectations.

"I don't want to limit us to what we're going to look for," Teague said. "I want somebody here, as I said earlier, that's going to recruit at the highest level, develop kids on and off the floor, and manage and build the program. It may not be, you look at names and you think, 'He should go for that person. He should go for this person.' It's more about fit and for what I feel like that person brings to the table and how it fits to where we are now."

Ellis likely plays no small part in the search as well. Ellis founded the Villa 7 consortium while at VCU, which helps the top assistant college coaches network with athletics directors. Ellis was reportedly the one that brought Smart to Teague in 2009. Villa 7 has also helped coaches like Grant, Williams, Memphis' Josh Pastner, Xavier's Chris Mack, Illinois' John Groce land head coaching jobs in its 10 years of existence.

"I refuse to feel that we cannot grow as a program and be great as a program," Teague said. "I feel like if we bring someone in with a fresh approach and has fresh ideas, that we can surprise ourselves. I know there's things that you have to operate within and we're always going to do that, but I do feel that we can go out and get a terrific candidate and feel good about it and move forward and really move the program forward."

And Teague believes he has a program to sell, even though Smith just led Minnesota to its first NCAA tournament win in 16 years. There is also the consideration of several highly regarded junior recruits in the state, led by Apple Valley's Tyus Jones, one of the most sought-after juniors in the entire country, and who Michigan State coach Tom Izzo flew in to watch in the Minnesota state high school tournament hours after earning a Sweet 16 bid.

Gavin Schilling, one of the country's top senior recruits who was considering Minnesota, announced last week that he will go to Michigan State.

"It's my intention to bring someone in that will compete with everybody in the country and on a national level of recruiting," Teague said. "I want somebody that does that and like I said, develops them on and off the floor, someone who manages the program at the highest level and that's my intention going forward."

Minnesota is still trying for a new practice facility, a project that preceded Smith's tenure with the Gophers. The cash-strapped athletics department is also paying a $2.5 million buyout to Smith and buyouts to former basketball coach Dan Monson and former football coach Tim Brewster.

"If we live in the past, we're going to get drug down by the past," Teague said. "We got to move forward and we've got to work hard while looking forward, and be encouraged by that."

Teague understands the limitations, but also emphasized he has a program he can sell.

"It's our job," Teague said. "It's my job to conduct the search, and I feel good about that. I feel like we have a lot to say, as I said earlier. I think sometimes we forget about the amazing positives here. Only Division I school in the state, in the Big Ten, passionate following, an amazing, historic arena. We've got a lot of great things to sell. These other jobs, they have their things. But we have Minnesota to sell and that's a great thing."

Time will tell whether it's enough to draw the top candidates, like Smart.

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