After months of breathless speculation and restrained hopefulness, Joel Maturi finally announced that he is stepping down as the University of Minnesota Athletic Director. Nearly ten years after he was hired in part to clean up the department after it was implicated in the academic fraud scandal that decimated the basketball program, he noted one of his greatest achievements was the lack of NCAA violations during his tenure. He did do that, but little else to benefit the university or the men’s basketball program.
A list of Maturi’s many failures begins and ends with basketball, which bookend the extending and firing of Glen Mason, the hiring and firing of Tim Brewster, and several law suits that may not have cost the university money (thanks to insurance that apparently covers general ineptitude). From his first major action with the University, extend Dan Monson’s contract, to his latest inactions, failing to secure funding for a practice facility and the general mess that is the Tubby Smith contract extension, Joel Maturi has arguably done as much to harm Gopher basketball as Clem Haskins, the man ultimately responsible for Maturi having a job. Joel Maturi seems like a very nice guy, and few people have anything negative to say about him as a person. Even Trevor Mbakwe, who lost a year of eligibility because of Maturi, wished him well. Unfortunately, he was also bad at his job.
When Maturi took over, the basketball program had only begun to recover from the crippling scandal. Dan Monson was enjoying modest success. He turned a 12 win team in his first season to a perennial bubble team the next. Besides the Kris Humphries season, up until that point it would have been difficult to judge the Monson era as anything but a success, but few saw the games. Joel Maturi decided to cast his lot with the ill-fated victory sports network to televise Gopher basketball games. None of the Gopher basketball games were on local television during the 2003-2004 season. Maturi was forced to grovel to cable subscribers to beg giant corporations to show the games.
Dan Monson did eventually make an NCAA tournament during the 2004-2005 season, but was unable to carry over any of that season’s success to the next with a 16-15 2005-2006 season. Rumors swirled that Monson was being let go, and it was reported he had been. Instead, Maturi extended Monson’s contract, only to famously fire him seven games into the following season.
The contract extension of Monson was clearly a poor decision, costing the University 1.3 millions dollars due to a buy-out of Monson’s contract. However, it did enable Maturi to luck into hiring Tubby Smith in what should have been a career saving coup. Unfortunately, Maturi was not content to bask in his good fortune, and had to veto the hiring of former Gopher assistant Jimmy Williams after he was offered the job by Tubby Smith. Williams would never coach for the Gophers but did win a $1.25 million law suit against the University.
Maturi also promised Tubby Smith a practice facility. At the time, this seemed like a bit of an unnecessary luxury that would help eliminate perceived recruiting shortcomings. It wasn’t built then, and it hasn’t been built now. No discernible effort has been made by Maturi to get it built. To date, it is nothing more than an unfunded idea drawn on a piece of paper. Every team in the Big Ten has a practice facility except the Gophers. What may have been a recruiting advantage is now major liability.
Despite a sub-par coaching staff and missing an elite recruiter, Tubby Smith was able to turn around the program. The Gophers beat a Louisville, at the time a top ten team and soon to be the overall #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers were undefeated, and set to face Michigan State in an early evening game on New Year’s Eve. It had the potential to be a program changing win, making it clear to the Big Ten and the country that the Gophers were back. Unfortunately, Joel Maturi moved the time of the game to 11 am to avoid would have been a television conflict with the football team that was playing an irrelevant bowl game. Many fans who had purchased tickets for the basketball game were unable to attend it because it was a work day. The atmosphere was noticeably lacking, undoubtedly due to the lack of some of the most enthusiastic fans. Luckily, Maturi was able to hop on a flight to watch Tim Brewster lose
his only the bowl game.
assemble an excellent recruiting class featuring Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, who were scheduled to join an already solid team. White’s issues are well documented (sorry Royce, an anxiety disorder doesn’t let you beat up security guards or withhold information about stolen laptops), and Mbakwe was not allowed to play until his own legal troubles were cleared. For some reason, the prosecutors in Miami were comfortable with Mbakwe walking the streets but Maturi wasn’t comfortable letting Mbakwe play. To date, Mbakwe has not been found guilty of any wrong doing in the Miami case. There has been wide speculation that Mbakwe was not allowed to play because of White’s troubles, and that Maturi didn’t want a team perceived as thugs. Despite not being officially cleared of anything, Maturi finally allowed Mbakwe to play after he threatened to transfer after his red-shirt season. It was classic Maturi. Over and over again he has refused to make decisions until he had no other choice.
Royce White, of course, transferred to Iowa State, joining a slew of other former Gophers enjoying success for other teams. Transfers are disappointingly common in college basketball, with one in four players leaving the teams they committed to out of high school. However, winning games has a sneaky way of preventing transfers. If Mbakwe and White had been allowed to play, I have no doubt that the Gophers would have played in a least one Sweet Sixteen by now, would have had fewer transfers and the program would be in a fundamentally better place. Instead, the Gophers have failed to reach their full potential, often with their best players on the bench.
For at least a year, Tubby Smith and the U have been working on a contract extension. There have been numerous reports that the deal is done and the lawyers are hashing out the final details. Despite a disappointing season last year and less than stellar results so far this season, there was still talk of extending Coach Smith’s contract. That deal isn’t done, but Maturi is. It will be up to the next athletic director to secure funding for a practice facility and determine the future of Coach Smith. Maybe Joel was right. If you wait long enough, some decisions don’t have to be made.