Replacing Pitino (Part II): Mountain West Guys with Minnesota Ties

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn - USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers suffered another terrible loss earlier this week, this time at the hands of lowly Penn State. That makes them an even 0-10 on the road this season, a feat that’s only been accomplished one other time since 1970. I’m sure Richard Pitino is happy to stick that feather in his cap.

Given the circumstances, it feels like a perfect time to dive back into possible head coaching replacements for Richard Pitino, after his likely dismissal sometime between now and May 1, when he is due a bonus of $400K if still employed.

Just in case you missed it, I posted PART I of this Richard Pitino replacement series a couple weeks ago. The names in that blog were ones I went out and found on my own. Just curiosity and some quick research.

This time, I have three more head coaching candidates. These names, however, have more real steam. They also have a few important commonalities.

  • all of these names have been floating around insider circles
  • they all have heavy Minnesota ties
  • they’re all young(er) than most of the candidates in part I
  • all three currently coach in the Mountain West Conference.

I spoke with Darren Wolfson (KSTP, SKOR North) on a new live streaming show I launched on Minnesota Sports Fan social media channels this week called, “On The Internet LIVE”. We discussed all three of these candidates, along with Eric Musselman, who was listed in part I.

Craig Smith | Career: 149-77| Age: 48 | Current: Utah State

If you want the leader of the proverbial clubhouse, to land the Minnesota Gophers job, Craig Smith is it. He may look like over-the-hill Mr. Clean and he might have the most generic two-first-name name in head coaching history, but his style is anything but that.

Craig is a high-energy guy who obviously connects well with his players. But he’s also seen as an offensive tactician, running a lot of handoff and ball screen actions, which Pitino likes too, but hasn’t had much success with.

Local ties, since we care so much about that? Smith is a Minnesota native, from Stephen, MN. He jumped the western border to get his undergrad at UND, then his master’s in South Dakota. Craig never attended or coached at the University of Minnesota, but is clearly a Midwest guy and holds the “one of us” card.

Smith Contract

Smith’s contract, much like everyone else on this list, would be much smaller than Richard Pitino’s (who currently makes over $2 million per season). Craig Smith just signed a new deal at Utah State that starts under $800K per season and peaks at $900K. Craig Smith’s buyout is only 25% of the total value remaining, which currently sits at less than $4 million.

Niko Medved | Career: 128-124 | Age: 47 | Current: Colorado State

The Niko Medved conversation starts with his Minnesota ties. He’s from Roseville, graduated from the University of Minnesota, had his first assistant coaching job under Dan Monson and comes from the Tim Miles coaching tree.

Recruiting? Well, Medved reeled in David Roddy from Minnesota to Colorado State, even while most thought he was an easy target for Richard Pitino. Now as a Sophomore, Roddy is leading the Rams in both points per game (16.1) and rebounds per game (9.6) and Niko is a the leading candidate for Mountain West Coach of the Year.

He stands at the top of the Mountain West conference, right next to Craig Smith and Brian Dutcher, but his success over time hasn’t come as quickly or as consistently.

2021 has been a different story, entirely. The Rams are near the top of the Mountain West and hold an 11-3 conference record, splitting both two-game series’ with the other coaches in this blog.

Medved Contract

Medved just signed an extension recently that pays him $750K per season and has the same type of buyout as Craig Smith’s at Utah State (25% of the remaining contract value). Conveniently, there are four seasons left on that contract after 2021, making the buyout exactly the cost of one season ($750K). So, Medved is another VERY affordable option for Coyle & Co.

Things get a little weird when you listen and/or watch Medved talk, however. He almost looks and speaks too much like PJ Fleck. Could Mark Coyle avoid hiring Medved as the Minnesota Gophers head coach, only because he might not be able to tell Niko and PJ apart? If Medved went for a midnight shave or Fleck joined a hair treatment club.. we could have problems.

Brian Dutcher | Career: 93-30 | Age: 62 | Current: South Dakota State

Brian Dutcher might be the most interesting candidate built into this blog… but I think he’s the least-likely choice. I’m not sure why, though. Brian’s dad, Jim Dutcher, coached the Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team for ten seasons from 1975-1985. He was 190-113, a relatively successful term compared to most of those who came before and after him.

Jim’s son, Brian Dutcher, has been at San Diego State for 20 years, but most of those seasons were spent as an assistant coach, behind SDSU legend, Steve Fisher. When Brian took the reigns in 2016-17, he was an immediate success, making the NCAA tournament in his first season.

In 2020, SDSU climbed as high as #4 in the AP Poll and posted an absurd 30-2 record on the season, before it was cut short due to COVID-19. This year, Dutcher has the Aztecs back at the top of the Mountain West (clinched regular season title earlier this week) with a 20-4 record and an easy at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Obviously, Dutcher has proven his coaching chops… even if he’s only been at the helm for four seasons.

Dutcher Contract

Brian Dutcher makes the most money out of anyone in this part of the Richard Pitino Replacement List, coming in at $1.33 million per year. How much of a raise would the University of Minnesota be willing to give him?

We’d have to wait and see but there is an interesting out in his SDSU contract that shows his soft spot for Minnesota. For Dutcher to leave SDSU for another school, he’d have to pay an absurd $7 million buyout… unless that school is the Minnesota Gophers. If he leaves the sandy beaches of San Diego, for his “dream job” up in the frozen Minnesota tundra, the buyout drops to $1 million.

All three of the coaches above are heading teams that sit in the Mountain West top-3. It’s possible that FOUR total teams (add Boise State) could earn at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament. The MWC isn’t a power-5 but sending three or more teams to the dance is nothing new. The mid-major conference actually earned FIVE selections in 2013.

Given the smaller cost and homegrown ties that these candidates have, it’s much more likely Coyle lands his new Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball head coach in this blog, than he does Musselman or anyone else in part I.

Don’t worry, there will be more of this series to come (soon).

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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