The Golden Gophers, as you probably know, dropped another winnable game to a bad Nebraska team. In what is now an annual tradition, another Minnesota sports team is failing when it matters most. It has become a right of passage for Minnesota fans to get their hopes up only to be let down. The eventual heartbreak has become the highlight of the season. There are many reasons why the Gopher basketball team can look so bad. The bigger question is why unsuccessful seasons have become the norm.

There is nothing inherently different about the Twin Cities that causes Minnesota sports teams to be so unsuccessful. Looking back at recently successful college and professional teams, championship teams are prevalent in cities of all sorts, some similar to the Twin Cities and some that couldn’t be more different. The one thing those other cities don’t have is Minnesota sports fans. We’ve created a monster, and it has a life of its own.

At some point in the past, we, the fans, got lazy. I don’t know the exact moment, but my guess it happened in early 1992. The Twins had just won their second World Series, Gopher basketball had plenty of recent success, the North Stars reached the Stanley Cup finals, the Vikings nearly made the Superbowl, and pro basketball was back after decades away. Those were the good times, the last good times. We expected the good times to keep rolling, but did nothing to make that happen. That success led to a self-perpetuating cycle of entitlement and disappointment that continues to this day.

Success, in life as in sports, is far from guaranteed. Fans naturally want to watch a winner, and when their team isn’t winning, they demand a change. Athletic directors and team owners (those interested in things other than profit) want to keep the fans happy. When times get rough fans demand a change, and sometimes athletic directors and team owners comply, sometimes when they shouldn’t, and sometimes without a plan.

Glen Mason was far from the ideal football coach. He seemed to have little interest recruiting, and otherwise committing himself to building a winning football program. He was not the long-term answer. Under his “leadership” his teams were winning though, at a rate that hadn’t been matched in decades. Mason’s teams mastered heartbreak as a highlight of a season. But for a heart to break, it has to care, and at the very least, there was significant re-engagement during his tenure. No one ever chanted for Jim Wacker to be fired, because no one cared. But Mason’s teams lost close games instead of being blown out, and had blow out wins in games that would have previously been close wins at best. Fans demanded a change without demanding a plan. They demanded a new coach without demanding changes that could fundamentally improve the program. They demanded anything but what they had, because anything would be better, and got something much worse. And when Brewster was gone, having not learned any lessons from the end of the Mason era, got their fourth or fifth choice for a head coach. Jerry Kill may be just what the program needs, but only because the athletic department got lucky. Mason wasn’t the first coach fired without a plan. Monson was let go early in the season with no obvious replacement, and Joel Maturi lucked, or so it seemed at the time, into hiring Tubby Smith. The Timberwolves, Vikings, and Wild have also made the mediocre worse by taking short cuts to getting better. Instead of demanding accountability, fans demand instant gratification, which never comes.

If the fans are the chicken, the media is the egg. The feed back loop between the media and the fans amplifies the worst tendencies of both. Fans who are pre-disposed to being disappointed want to be told they are right to be disappointed, and the media is all too happy to oblige. I don’t envy those in the traditional media. Quantity is more important that quality. In the era of #hashtag journalism, to incite is more important than to provide insight. Generating heat is more important than generating light. In an endless quest for retweets and page views, there is a disincentive to providing quality journalism. If the fans want snarky tweets about a practice facility, a snarky tweet they will receive. It is much easier to blindly criticize players for not improving than to explain the lengths they must go through to find a place to practice on their own time. It is much easier to criticize recruiting than to explain the importance of a practice facility in recruiting. It is much easier to do both than to investigate why after six years a practice facility is still in the preliminary planning stages, without any real plant to ever get it built.

I don’t expect the media to root for local teams, but I do expect them to be reasonable. I assume they would rather cover winners than losers, if only because consistent losers can be dreadfully boring. However I do expect them to be reasonable. Erick Erickson, whose politics I deplore, at the very least understands the power of poorly performing media. Instead of actual reporting, all to often, the media tells their audience what they think they want to hear, and instead the opposite happens. And to make their point, they ignore reality. Wins during the Big Ten Tournament or against Iowa suddenly don’t count. Stories about close wins include phrases like “should have lost” or “almost lost” while close losses are evidence of poor coaching and lack of toughness. This only reinforces fan disappointment and reactionary calls for immediate change. It should come as no surprise that the local media is handling the Tubby Smith situation as well as every coaching situation recent memory. At least they are consistent. They’d rather amplify discontent than examine problems and propose solutions. If we don’t learn from history, we will repeat it.

It doesn’t have to be this bad. As a fan, you can demand better. My math teachers in high school demanded that I show my work. You should do the same. If the a media makes an assertion, ask them to back it up. If they are wrong they probably won’t admit it, but they might do a bit of extra work the next time. And when they do the extra work, let them know they are appreciated. I know I should do this more often. Amelia Rayno thought that Tubby Smith’s line-up choices were hurting the team’s chances to win. Instead of leaving it at that, she did the work to prove it. In a better media environment this wouldn’t be worthy of praise, it would be the norm. If the media exposed the real problems, and fans demanded real solutions, we might not need to ask what is wrong with Minnesota sports every year. And if we don’t change, we’ll keep getting what we deserve.

9 thoughts on “We get what we deserve: On Minnesota sports, fans, media, and the monster we created.

  1. i think what you have to say makes sense. my question is, why doesn’t eliot eliason get more playing time? when given a chance, he gets results, something that tubby seems to forget when dishing out playing time. eliot is aggressive, energetic, great passer for a big man, good rebounder and shot blocker and and shows more hustle than most of his teamates. he is the only true center on the team. he should be starting instead of joe coleman or rodney williams. the game is about who scores the most points and holds the opponent to the fewest points. as i have already stated, eliason gets results-results -results.

  2. Excellent take. And one I agree with wholeheartedly.

    What’s this? Have a plan if you are firing somebody? What a brilliant notion. And my primary criticism of the ‘Fire Tubby now!’ ilk. My current position is that you cannot fire Tubby unless you have a legitimate plan in place for handling his buyout costs and lining up a successor. Expecting a big donor to write the check and assuming Shaka Smart or Flip Saunders are the answer are not a plan.

    The U already is already paying $400K per year in Monson/Mason/Brewster buyout loan money, and will continue to do so until 2017. Tack on another $2.5MM and we’re looking at a staggering sum.

    Unless the right coach is available (and I’m not certain who that is, though my gut says Gregg Marshall), I think you have to live with Tubby for another season or hope that he decides to retire. We can’t keep hamstringing our Athletic Department by saddling it with excessive debt.

    Tubby’s tenure has been frustrating and periodically very disappointing. But not an abject disaster either. Yes, the conference record is unimpressive. And yes, there are head-scratching losses mixed in there. But other Big Ten teams have had similar dumbfounding losses along the way as well (Penn State over Michigan, and Purdue at Wisconsin recently come to mind).

    Tubby has underachieved in conference play to be sure, and is rightly in the hot seat. But that doesn’t mean you knee-jerk fire him without a prudent plan.

  3. The reason the media is so negative to Gopher basketball is because we’ve seen this before out of Tubby. His teams have consistently regressed throughout the season. His half-court offense has been atrocious throughout the years. Players have left the program and become superstars. If you’re a recruit, and you see the success of Joseph, Cobbs, Iverson in other programs and you see the regression of Sampson and Rodney Williams with Tubby, why would you choose Minnesota? Try and think of one Gopher player that has improved over his tenure at Minnesota. The reason people are mad is because this current team has a lot of talent, and Tubby gets so little out of it.

  4. I was thinking of the team a few years earlier that played in the NFC championship. Perhaps I should stick to basketball.

  5. Bandanna Guy makes a great point about owing money to previous coaches that have since been let go so he’s probably right about Tubby. Here’s an idea that a lot of people are going to think is a little crazy but maybe this is what we should do. Lets build Tubby the practice facility he’s been asking for since he first came here. This will give him the recruiting tool he has longed for and if it doesn’t help him win then we can let him go a couple of years from now. That way we won’t owe so much money to him if he still can’t win and we’ll be able to attract a better coach when we let Tubby go. I also propose we build new student housing for the players so we can get some of the four star talent we’ve lost out on. If you think about it we haven’t spent a penny on this team when it comes to there practice facility, arena or housing for the past 20 plus years and all the other big time college basketball teams have way more to offer these recruits. We’ve spent more on the swimming and diving teams then we have on the basketball team and that’s a fact. We can build an arena for the ladies hockey team who hasn’t lost a game in 2 years now but we can’t do anything for our basketball team who makes a heck of a lot more money than the other teams I just mentioned. By the way this isn’t an attack on those teams and I think it’s great having any of our gopher teams win a national title but I’d like to see the basketball team win a few more games and be competitive when it comes to recruiting. When it comes to recruiting and basketball the gophers rank at the bottom of the conference and almost all of the other teams sign higher rated players according to the recruiting services. If you don’t believe it look for your self its easy enough to do. My plan is to invest now and if we don’t get the results we want then look for a new coach. I think that’s a pretty good plan. Its a heck of a lot better than the 3 guys JF mentioned.

  6. The U is a joke when it comes to sports. Plain and simple they will not spend the money needed to provide winning teams in the major money making sports of hoops and football. They spend less money on football then Northwestern for christs sake. Go watch a liver transplant and applaud that…it’s what they do best and always will be. You will NEVER see the men’s fball or bball teams win another Big Ten championship. There is no way they can and they will only get worse and worse as the years proceed.

  7. Gophers vs Illinois in an elimination game on Thursday. The winner is on the NCAA bubble and the loser is in the NIT. But I think if the Gophers win, they will still need one more win to make the NCAA.

  8. Fluter I agree about not spending the money needed to win but the winner of the game between Illinois and Minnesota is in for sure and the loser will probably get in despite the loss. As far as JF’s article titled (we get what we deserve) it’s a bunch of phsyco babble I don’t get.

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