Despite having compiled the best record in school history during her 12 years at the helm, a five-year drought in NCAA Tournament appearances, and a history of player discontent, led to the firing of Minnesota head coach Pam Borton. (Photo by Tony Geer)
Despite having compiled the best record in school history during her 12 years at the helm, a five-year drought in NCAA Tournament appearances, and a history of player discontent, led to the firing of Minnesota head coach Pam Borton. (Photo by Tony Geer)

Borton's firing stemmed from long-held discontent

April 4, 2014 - 11:50pm

MINNEAPOLIS -- Former Minnesota coach Pam Borton’s firing last week was the culmination of long-time discontent with her performance, school officials say.

Borton spent 12 seasons at the helm for the Gophers and compiled a 236-152 record, which was the best in school history. But over the past five seasons, Borton has gone 94-79 overall, and 31-51 in Big Ten play, and Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague said it was time for Borton to go.

"Pam gave her heart and soul for over a decade," Teague said, "But we feel it is time to look at another leader to position this program for long-term success."

Teague's desire for new leadership grew following the team's most recent campaign. Though the Gophers went 22-13 this season, their best record since 2005-06, Minnesota was left out of the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight year, failing to record enough quality wins to earn consideration from the tournament Selection Committee.

Prior to this season, a number of other factors increased friction between Borton and the Gophers' dwindling fan base. The peak of her tenure came in 2003-04 season, when she led Minnesota to its first and only Final Four appearance in school history with players brought in by Brenda Frese, who coached Minnesota for one season before becoming coach at Maryland. At the time, attendance hovered close to 10,000 fans per game; by this season, it had plummetted by more than two-thirds to just 3,178 per session.

Following the 2005-06 season, five Gophers players and an assistant coach defected. An internal review cited a lack of communication, misunderstandings and "feelings of mistrust" between Borton and athletes. Although Borton said she did learn from that experience, Minnesota never fully recovered from the exodus. The Gophers have registered just one NCAA tournament win since 2006, which was an upset over Note Dame in 2009. Minnesota's low point came in the 2010-11 season when they posted a dismal 12-18 record, including going 4-12 in conference play.

The Gophers' record has steadily improved since, but it seems that player-coach relations might not have followed suit. Six-foot-seven center Amber Dvorak left the program over the summer, transferring to Drury and stating that she wanted to "rediscover my love for basketball." Dvorak added that when she heard from Drury head coach Steve Huber, who had recruited her while he was an assistant at Creighton and she was still in high school, "I was very excited to hear from him... It's nice to know someone still wanted me, and I would get the chance to end my basketball career on a positive note."

Six-one forward Kionna Kellogg, who was a regular starter, also left the team last spring before completing her athletic eligibility, transferring to Emporia State. Despite averaging just 6.5 points per game, Kellogg had been the Gophers' second-leading rebounder at 5.4 rebounds per game and a year earlier had been named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team.

The departures only reinforced Borton's reputation as remote and taciturn.

Furor mounted when details of a secret two-year contract extension given to Borton by outgoing athletic director Joel Maturi two weeks before his retirement were publicized last year, and an embarrassing first-round loss to Ball State in last year's WNIT strengthened calls for her removal. Teague was not present for most of those exchanges, and in a press conference held March 28 to discuss Borton's firing, he noted that his calculation was based on observations since he arrived at Minnesota two years ago.

"This decision is a future decision, it's not based on what's been done in the past. I looked at who we are and where we're going. You make a gut decision over a long period of that evaluation," he said.

What Teague saw was a coach who had difficulty developing players she was able to bring in, and one who rarely assumed responsibility for adverse situations in a sport where decisions made by all team personnel can influence the outcome. After a loss, Borton would often call out her players for lacking toughness or other elements, leaving players and fans to conclude that she was unsupportive of the players.

On the court, Teague viewed a team that had a hard time producing points, nullifying a defense, and a team that gave up 63.5 points per game.

Offensively, the Gophers were ninth in the Big Ten Conference at 68.7 points per game - a number that would likely have been even lower without league scoring champion Rachel Banham, who averaged 22 points per game. When Banham sat out of Minnesota's match with North Dakota on Dec. 8 to rest a bruised knee, her teammates barely escaped with a 46-44 win in a game that should not have been close. The five Big Ten teams who qualified for this year's NCAA tournament (Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue) occupied the top five positions in scoring for the season.

Borton showed few indications that she knew her job was in jeopardy. In the week before she was fired, she and several Gophers players watched future player Carlie Wagner lead New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva High School to a class AA state championship at Williams Arena, tweeting her support when Wagner was named Minnesota Associated Press Player of the Year.

The University reportedly will have to pay Borton $335,000 to buy out the remainder of her contract. The search for a replacement is now underway. Assistant Kelly Roysland will serve as interim head coach during the process.

Teague declined to speak on individual candidacies at the press conference, but he did state that the Minnesota job is a golden opportunity for Borton's eventual successor. Whoever is hired will have one more year to make the most of Banham's prolific scoring, the post present of Big Ten Freshman of the Year Amanda Zahui B., who already holds school records for single-season blocks and rebounds, and a top incoming recruit in Wagner.

Teague listed three criteria he is looking for in his search: Someone who can exhibit leadership, communicate effectively to college-age adults, and recruit both locally and nationally.

Recruiting was a weak point in Borton's later years: The recruiting class of 2008, consisting of Kiara Buford, Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt initially received much praise, but the group performed far below expectations throughout their college endeavor. In 2009, Borton missed out on Tayler Hill, who once held the high school career scoring record in Minnesota. Hill went to Ohio State and now plays for the Washington Mystics in the WNBA.

Last year's high school class boasted a plethora of top prospects, with all five Miss Basketball Minnesota finalists (Nia Coffey, Rebekah Dahlman, Jessica January, Tyseanna Johnson and MC McGrory) signing to play at major Division One schools, but none opting to sign with the Gophers.

Names suggested to replace Borton include Niele Ivery, the long-time assistant coach at Notre Dame. Her biggest credit is mentoring Skylar Diggins, who now plays for the WNBA's Tulsa Shock. Aaron Johnston, whose South Dakota State team knocked off Minnesota in the third round of this year's WNIT, is also considered a front-runner. Even Lindsay Whalen, whose star power originated with the Gophers, was rumored in February by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Examining previous changes under Teague's watch, the new Gophers head coach may come from an external source. Shaka Smart was an assistant coach at Florida before Teague called him up to lead the VCU men's basketball team, and Richard Pitino spent one year at Florida International before getting the Minnesota men's basketball job. Neither had any ties to their current schools.

"I have a pool of people I'm going to talk to. We'd like to move with a good pace. I don't want to be in a hurry," Teague said. "We're going to have a lot of people that are going to be interested."