Thursday, Apr. 15, 2021



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U Needs Minnesota Hoops Connection


The University of Minnesota is expected to buy out the contract of men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino soon. Pitino had eight seasons to prove he was worthy of his position, but the results are among the worst in program history including only one winning year in Big Ten Conference games.

Pitino was hired at 30 years old, with one season of previous head coaching experience at Florida International University. He reportedly was a sixth, seventh or eighth choice of then athletic director Norwood Teague. The U administration later carelessly threw money at Pitino, convinced that was necessary to retain him. He should have been dismissed three years ago.

In this millennium the state of Minnesota’s “biological twin” to the east, Wisconsin, has seen its Badgers program going to Final Fours and winning Big Ten championships including last year. In contrast to Minnesota, the Badgers have been led by coaches with ties to Wisconsin starting with Dick Bennett, then Bo Ryan and now Wisconsin born Greg Gard.

For decades the Badgers have built their roster with Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota players. This year’s Badgers have seven Minnesotans on the roster, while the Gophers finish their season with two. Pitino fired more blanks than bulls-eyes in recruiting this state, missing frequently on top talent and all but ignoring promising walk-ons.

Athletic director Mark Coyle will identify and then hire the next coach with the expected approval of U president Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents. His candidate pool should include several coaches with Minnesota ties. This is an opportune time to choose a coach familiar with and appreciative of the U, and the state’s people, culture, quality of life and Fortune 500 business community.

A coach with state ties can bring unique passion and commitment to the Gopher job. He will want Minnesotans to be proud of their Gophers. With a commitment and attitude like that, it’s much less likely the coach will see this as a stepping stone job and want to move on.

This is a huge hiring decision for Coyle. Gopher basketball has to end the cycle of failed coaching eras and establish a long run of success like Wisconsin has done. A winning program translates to more than a better experience for the players and fans. Men’s basketball is the second largest income-producing sport among 22 programs in the self-supporting athletic department, and increased revenues are needed more than ever. With the state almost bursting with quality high school basketball talent, the U program has more potential than in the past and is positioned for success with the right leadership.

Richard Pitino

It is standard operating procedure for athletic directors to maintain lists of potential replacement coaches, seldom knowing for sure when change will come. Coyle may have been thinking for a long time about who might take over for Pitino (I am told he was almost dismissed last March).

Interestingly, San Diego State coach and Minnesota native Brian Dutcher signed a contract extension last September that included a favorable provision about the Gopher job. Dutcher’s buyout with the Aztecs is nearly $7 million unless he accepts the Minnesota job. Then the buyout is $1 million.

Dutcher was open last year in talking about his interest in coming home after growing up in Bloomington as the son of former U head basketball coach Jim Dutcher. He made it known the state and the U, his alma mater, are special to him. His dad and sisters live in the metro area.

Brian, a former national coach of the year, checks the boxes for what Coyle should be looking for in a coach including experience and proven success. Finishing up his fourth year as Aztecs head coach, he has won Mountain West Conference titles and brought national attention to his program including last season when SDSU won 26 consecutive games and was ranked No. 4 in the country.

Dutcher has more than 30 years of college coaching experience including a long run as an assistant known for his recruiting. His ability to sell helped Michigan assemble the Fab Five of the 1990s and as head coach at San Diego State he has established recruiting roots in California. His sincerity, common sense and reputation would resonate well with Minnesota high school recruits and coaches.

At 61 Dutcher will coach at least several more years. Even if he has great success at Minnesota, he isn’t leaving for another job. Instead, he might hand his job off to a top assistant on the staff. That assistant could be Ryan Saunders.

Saunders, 34, can be another legacy coach for the Gophers. He played for Minnesota as did his father, Flip Saunders, who also was an assistant coach for Jim Dutcher. Minnesota-born Ryan was recently fired as Minnesota Timberwolves head coach but if he chooses there is a lot of coaching opportunity ahead. His NBA experience would be valuable in both recruiting and coaching for the Gophers. He could also be interested in learning the college game from a mentor like Brian Dutcher.

It’s too bad but I don’t see a return path to Minneapolis for Eric Musselman. If he leaves Arkansas before April 30, he or his next school owe $5 million for a buyout. Coyle isn’t paying $5 million, or leaving his basketball program in limbo until May.

Musselman is a terrific coach with a zealous desire to win. He made Nevada a national name in basketball and is turning around the Arkansas program. The U, with a history of failed actions in football, basketball and hockey dismissals and hires, should have pursued Musselman three years ago when he was at Nevada.

Eric was a pre-teenager living in Bloomington when he watched his dad, Bill Musselman, make the Gophers a Big Ten power and box office hit in Minneapolis during the 1970s. What a homecoming it could have been with the Gophers winning games and Eric reviving the raucous pre-game warm-up show that Bill had his players entertain with.

Former Gopher J.B. Bickerstaff is deserving of a phone call from Coyle. Yes, he is finishing up the first year of a four-year deal as head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavs but making the assumption he wouldn’t be interested in the Gopher job is wrong. Coyle won’t know without asking.

Bickerstaff, 41, was once head coach of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, and he spent four seasons in Minneapolis as an assistant with the Timberwolves. His extensive NBA resume would bring sophisticated X’s and O’s to the U program, and grab the attention of high school recruits.

Maybe Bickerstaff wants a change and wants to get away from the NBA travel grind and return to his alma mater. His presence as Minnesota head coach might prompt offering an assistant’s position to Jared Nuness, a valued staff member of the highly ranked Baylor program. Nuness, son of former Gophers basketball captain Al Nuness, grew up in Eden Prairie and could become another legacy hire for the U.

Niko Medved, 47, would probably crawl through glass to come back home. He could be a poster boy for candidates with Minnesota ties. Minneapolis-born, Medved’s story might be worthy of a made-for-TV movie if he were hired by the Gophers and went on to win championships. He was a student manager for the Gophers in the early 1990s and from 1997-1999 associate head coach at Macalester. He then worked his way along the coaching trail with assistant jobs including one season with the U. As head coach at Furman, Drake and now Colorado State, he has achieved program turnarounds.

This season Colorado State is 17-5 overall and 14-4 in the Mountain West Conference. Contributing to the Rams’ success is assistant coach Dave Thorson, the Minnesota prep coaching legend from DeLaSalle. With the Gophers, Thorson would create instant credibility and rapport with state high school coaches.

The Rams finished in third place in the Mountain West, behind Dutcher’s 14-3 Aztecs and coach Craig Smith’s 15-4 Utah State team. Smith is a native of Stephen, Minnesota and it is believed Coyle had interest in him 12 months ago. Smith’s employment with the Aggies dates back to the 2018-19 season and it is more than impressive.

He has produced two Mountain West Tournament title teams, a share of one regular season championship and been to the NCAA Tournament twice. His overall record at State is 72-22 and 42-13 in conference games. The Aggies will be headed to the Big Dance no matter what happens to them in the conference tournament that begins Wednesday.

Like Medved, Smith started his career with obscure jobs and early on first gained attention on the NAIA level. His first two head coaching jobs were at Mayville State in North Dakota and at the University of South Dakota—more evidence of Upper Midwest roots.

Coyle’s friends will tell you he is a strategic thinker and bright guy. Let’s see who glitters gold for him.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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