Sam Mitchell is having a lousy first year in charge of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Mitchell inherited the job from his former boss, Flip Saunders, upon Saunders' death just before this season started.
The team he took control of has a number of promising youngsters — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine among them — a finally healthy Ricky Rubio at point guard, and Kevin Garnett, defensive menace and vocal team leader.
This hasn't translated to much: Through Thursday, the Timberwolves have 25 wins and 50 losses, a small improvement over last year, and the fifth-worst win-loss record in the NBA. With a talented young roster, some think Mitchell should take the blame, and be fired at the end of the year.
Don't be surprised if that happens, says Larry Fitzgerald Sr., a longtime local sportswriter for the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder. (And, yes, the father of the NFL football star Larry Fitzgerald.) In a column this week, Fitzgerald writes that axing Sam Mitchell would be in keeping with this state's history of shedding black coaches who didn't deserve it.
Writes Fitzgerald: "Minnesota is simply not comfortable with Black men in charge, even when they win."
It's a bold claim. Fitzgerald thinks he's got the proof to back it up. He presents three recent case studies to prove his point: Dennis "Denny" Green, who coached a successful stretch with the Minnesota Vikings throughout the 1990s, only to be ousted from his job after one bad season (5-10) in 2001.
Fitzgerald also cites former University of Minnesota basketball coach Tubby Smith, who took the team to three NCAA tournaments, including in 2012-13, when the team lost in the second round. Richard Pitino took over in Smith's wake, and the team hasn't been back to the tournament since.
The third example given is Dwane Casey, who had a brief stint as Timberwolves coach starting in 2005. Casey had a losing first season, but was 20-20 in his second year when the team fired him and replaced him with Randy Wittman. Wittman went 38-105 during a disastrous run as coach before he, too, was fired.
Casey went on to become head coach of the Toronto Raptors, where he remains today. That team has become an overachieving team, winning 50 games this season, a first in franchise history. Casey's the most successful coach in that young franchise's history. Second most successful? Sam Mitchell, who made the playoffs twice, and was awarded the NBA Coach of the Year honors in 2007.
Larry Fitzgerald Sr. suspects a "media cabal" will run Mitchell out of town. Just you watch, he writes.
"After all," Fitzgerald writes, "Minnesota has a history of assassinating Black coaches."
That's some loaded language in a discussion of professional sports coaches. Was Brad Childress, one year removed from an NFC Championship game, "assassinated" by the Vikings in 2010? Was Flip Saunders, one year removed from making the NBA Western Conference finals, assassinated in 2005?
A cooler, and more convincing argument is found a little higher up in Fitzgerald's piece: Mitchell was Saunders' pick as assistant coach. Saunders also traded for Mitchell back when he was a player, bringing Mitchell back to the Timberwolves, the team that originally drafted him. Milt Newton, also black, was Flip's choice for general manager.
If the team intends to honor the designs and wishes of Saunders, easily the greatest coach in team history, it might be best to give his guys another year to get things figured out.