The Minnesota Gophers officially fired their head coach Richard Pitino less than one week ago but the search for his replacement is already well underway. In fact, we APPEAR to be closer to the end of this hiring process than we are the beginning. With other jobs around the country opening and closing by the day, time doesn’t seem like something athletic director Mark Coyle has at his disposal.
The betting money currently sits on a new head coach being named sometime this week but even assuming that could make you look foolish. Coyle told us he would be casting a wide net during this hiring process and, by all accounts, that’s exactly what he’s done. If you’re a D1 basketball coach or if your name is printed on the internet anywhere under a ‘Gopher Head Coach Watch List’ then you or your people have spoken with Coyle and/or his people.
We have a lot to discuss but let’s start with the latest, which came from KSTP (Ch. 5) Sports early this morning. The fact is, we know very little about what Mark Coyle is thinking (continue reading) but it’s clear that the process is getting into the more serious stages today.
No. Iowa hoops coach Ben Jacobson interviewed for the #Gophers job over the weekend, sources tell KSTP Sports. We hear at least 1 other in-person interview has already occurred, w/ at least 1 more on the horizon today. Utah St coach Craig Smith is expected to interview in-person.— KSTPSports (@KSTPSports) March 22, 2021
More than three people we've been in contact with in the last 24 hours do. I said as such on TV last night. But then again, negotiations on $$ can always get goofy. But know this: this process is ramping up big-time today, and did over the weekend.— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) March 22, 2021
The Leaders in the Clubhouse
I haven’t seen Ben Jacobson’s (UNI) name much, until KSTP tweeted out his interview this morning. Three names have has sat at the top of the rumor mill for most of this search but one has reportedly just fallen off the list. They were Dennis Gates (Cleveland State), Craig Smith (Utah State) and Niko Medved (Colorado State).
Just in this morning, Ryan James (GopherIllustrated.com) believes Gates has pulled his name from contention. As said above, it’s going to be a wild day. There’s also one wild card who has shot like a rocket into the lead conversation over the last few days.
In thinking about Ben Johnson: basically any coach that got the job would want to bring him along with his recruiting and roots here. Well-thought of locally and in the business. Can bring in experience like Whalen and Juwan Howard did on the bench. Why not just hire him?— Justin Gaard (@jgkfan) March 21, 2021
Many days into MN search, it’s evident that Ben has a lot of support. He’d energize many alums, would recruit his behind off. Talent trumps all & he’d get talent here. Checks many of Coyle’s boxes. I keep circling back to this Reusse tweet Feb. 25. Will be interesting. #Gophers https://t.co/LyIjg4ztaH— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) March 21, 2021
Ben Johnson is an assistant coach at Xavier. Ben is 39-years-old and from Minneapolis. He captained the Gophers basketball team for his Junior and Senior seasons before graduating in 2005. He’s probably the most well-connected assistant in the country when it comes to the Minnesota AAU circuit.
Tyus Jones (yes that Tyus Jones) would disagree, however. If he were making this hire, Colorado State head coach Niko Medved and assistant Dave Thorson (who was the head coach at DeLaSalle for NINE years) would be the choice. I wonder if Mark Coyle called Tyus up after this tweet… (remember the wide net)
Gophers should hire Niko Medved and Dave Thorson ASAP— Tyus Jones (@1Tyus) March 21, 2021
Why don’t we know more?
Insiders across town, and throughout the nation, are having issues finding people Mark hasn’t talked to about the Minnesota head coaching job. Anyone with basketball connections in the state, it seems, has talked to the Gopher AD or knows someone who has. Even if he isn’t calling to gauge interest in the job itself, he’s calling to see what insight or thoughts you might have on who should get a look. Again, Coyle said he would cast a WIDE net and take in a HIGH volume of opinions and insight on what this program needs and he’s been a man of his word.
But that’s part of the problem. Coyle and his committee are taking in all the information they can absorb but they aren’t sharing their thoughts with anyone on the outside.
This isn’t a shocker to those who follow the University of Minnesota athletic department. Coyle keeps his department buttoned up and opinions in-house. When you’re following a ninja AD like Mark Coyle, only one thing is for certain. You won’t know anything until he wants you to know something.
What is Coyle looking for?
I can cry about the Minnesota MBB coaching budget (or lack thereof) all I want. But one thing has become clear during this process: cost is a major factor. If power-5 coaches like Eric Musselman (Arkansas) and Mike Boynton (OK State) can be had by the Gophers, you wouldn’t know it by following this search. From everything I can gather throughout the world wide web, neither guy has been a real player in this hiring process.
As you may have noticed above, all of the rumored front runners are from mid-major conferences, which means all of them can be had for cheap. That doesn’t mean they won’t be successful. It’s just a fact.
Recruiting. That’s the supposed focus for Coyle. He wants someone who can build a border wall around the state of Minnesota. Of course, the coaching part matters too but the Gophers seem to be prioritizing recruiting effort and recruiting ability, more than coaching acumen or experience. That opens up the field to younger, less experienced coaches who are more relatable, have the energy to recruit nonstop and can BE HAD FOR CHEAP.
If Coyle wants to close the border…
If Coyle’s main focuses are to close the Minnesota recruiting borders and save cash, either Johnson or Medved would be his best options. Could getting all three (Medved as HC and Thorson + Johnson as AC’s) on the same staff be the ultimate goal? Only time will tell.
Minnesota will continue to conduct interviews Monday as this thing catches fire. But, that doesn’t mean we have any idea where the dust settles when it’s over. Mark Coyle moves like a ninja.
If you want to pay closer attention to this coaching search, set your notifications on Twitter for Darren Wolfson of KSTP/SKOR North (@DWolfsonKSTP). If you want to go a bit deeper, subscribe to GopherIllustrated.com ($$$). Ryan James (@RyanJamesMN on Twitter) is their basketball insider and he puts out more insider info on their ‘Gopher Report’ message boards than you will find anywhere in a public forum. Ryan Burns does a great job for them on the football side too.
Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan