|With no regrets - and no apologies - Smith making himself at home at Minnesota|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 25 January 2008 06:30|
Tubby Smith barely looks up. Whether fans love him like they do here or grumble about him the way they did near the end at Kentucky doesn't really matter. He knows what makes a good coach, and it has nothing to do with the whims of the public.
``As long as I'm out here teaching and coaching, I know my self-worth and I know that I know who I am,'' Smith said. ``I'm very confident about who I am. If I had to listen to critics, I wouldn't be in this business, that's for sure.''
To be honest, Smith wasn't even on Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi's original wish list after Dan Monson was forced out in November 2006.
Smith is one of the biggest names in college basketball. He's won a national title, never once had a losing season in 16 years as a head coach and has a 14-year streak of 20 wins or more. For a decade, he had the premier job in the country, at the school synonymous with college basketball.
Minnesota had some history and passionate fans of its own. But really, the program was more known nationally for two things: the academic cheating scandal that gutted the program and stripped the school of its only Final Four appearance; and one of the ugliest brawls in sports history, the 1972 fiasco that put three Ohio State players in the hospital.
``I really believed all along that Minnesota could hire a high-profile men's basketball coach,'' Maturi said. ``Did I think I could get Tubby Smith at the front end? Frankly, his name wasn't on my list because I didn't realize he would leave Kentucky for Minnesota.''
But as Maturi made phone calls, took phone calls and talked to everyone he knew in his search for a new coach, he heard something curious.
``Two different people called me and said, `You know what? I think if it were right, Tubby might leave Kentucky,''' Maturi said.
If Kentucky weren't, well, Kentucky, Smith would have been revered at his former job. He gave the Wildcats their seventh national title in his first season as head coach, won five Southeastern Conference titles and was as much a regular at the NCAA tournament as CBS.
But just as no other school has Kentucky's rich tradition, no school has the burden of such unrelenting expectations, either. Kentucky fans expect their team to contend for a national championship every year, no excuses.
Fans never gave Smith full credit for that NCAA title, since it came the year after Rick Pitino left - never mind that Smith did it without a bunch of NBA prospects. And while Smith and the Wildcats made three more trips to the regional finals, they never did win another championship.
Worse, Kentucky had double-digit losses five times under Smith, leading fans to derisively dub him ``Ten-loss Tubby.''
``That's just the way it is,'' Smith said, shrugging. ``That's just the way it is because of the interest that people have in Kentucky basketball.''
Pressure on Smith intensified his last two seasons, so much so that Kentucky's athletic director Mitch Barnhart felt compelled to give him a vote of confidence the week the NCAA tournament began last year. Through it all, Smith remained the model of integrity and class.
But as anyone who's paid even the slightest attention to big-time athletics knows, whenever a vote of confidence is handed out, it usually only means that a clock is ticking somewhere.
``The last couple of years weren't really bad,'' said his wife, Donna. ``If you choose to wallow in something or if you go away from the things that have always been good for you, then that's your fault. That's your problem. You don't have to read the newspaper every day. No one forces you to do that.''
After the Wildcats lost to Kansas in the second round, Smith said he planned to return to Kentucky.
Five days later, he was being introduced at Minnesota.
``When I said that, I was planning on staying'' at Kentucky, Smith said. ``Did I think I needed a change? No, I wasn't really contemplating a change. But things come at you in so many ways and you have to adjust.
``I tell our players all the time, you're going to have constant change - your thoughts, your vision, your goals. They're constantly changing. So you've got to be willing to change,'' he added. ``That's why I'm here.''
Why leave Kentucky at all - and for Minnesota, of all places? Smith said it's not as outlandish as it sounds. He liked and respected Maturi, and felt he and the program could count on strong support from the university. The Gophers are part of the Big Ten, and the conference was about to launch its own television network that would extend the network's influence to fans - and potential recruits - around the country.
Granted, Minnesota lost a school-record 22 games last season. But Smith has a good record with restoration projects.
Tulsa had just five returning players when Smith arrived in 1991. Yet he took the Golden Hurricanes to the conference championship game his first season. By his third season, Smith had Tulsa back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years.
In his first season at Georgia, the Bulldogs earned their first NCAA bid in five years.
``I expected somebody to come in and really turn this program around and be intense. That's definitely what he's been doing,'' Gophers guard Lawrence McKenzie said. ``He's teaching us how to win, from the first day he came in. He showed us that championship ring and said, `This is what we're going to be striving for and this is what we want.'''
This reclamation project will be much tougher than any other, but it's already showing signs of progress. He has taken the same group that was a disaster last year and made it not only competitive, but respectable.
Their 10-1 start was their best in seven years. Sure, it came courtesy of a forgiving schedule, but they piled up more wins by Jan. 1 than they did all of last season. They lost close games last week to Indiana and Michigan State, two of the Big Ten's toughest teams.
``We've tried to build a schedule to help us grow the program and let them grow emotionally and build their confidence,'' Smith said.
And the Gophers are getting the hang of ``Tubby Ball,'' Smith's style of play that is based on defense, defense and even more defense. In that loss to Michigan State last Sunday, Minnesota harassed the Spartans into 18 turnovers, two shy of their season high.
``He wants to win as much as us,'' said Minnesota guard Lawrence Westbrook, who has been on the receiving end of more than a few of the infamous ``Tubby Stares.''
``He's fiery, and I like that. You can tell he wants to put on the uniform and play, too,'' Westbrook said. ``When you have a coach like that, who's that competitive, you can't help but win. You want to run through a brick wall for coach.''
Smith's influence is even more impressive when you consider that going into the weekend, Kentucky was just 8-9 this year, and fans are already muttering about his successor, Billy Gillispie. Or that Long Beach State, where Monson now coaches, was 4-13 a year after making the NCAA tournament.
Smith's impact off the court has been no less significant.
Minnesota has a passionate fan base, and Williams Arena - affectionally dubbed ``The Barn'' - was once the largest college arena in the country. But the scandals and the losses disillusioned fans, and many drifted away. Crowds dwindled, and the Gophers were no longer the team of choice after the Vikings' season was over.
But Smith has restored fans' hopes. He has made Gophers games ``events'' again - no small feat in an area that boasts not one major city but two, all four professional sports and big-time college hockey.
The Barn had its first sellout in almost three years for the Jan. 17 Indiana game, then followed it up with another three days later for Michigan State. The rowdy atmosphere is back, too. Students dressed in bright yellow T-shirts declaring ``It's Tubby Time'' stand for the entire game, and come up with creative ways to razz opponents. There's even a group of students who come in animal costumes.
``Tubby just has an aura about him,'' said Adam Anderson, who dresses as Clifford the Big Red Dog. ``I don't know what it is. It's some kind of mystique.''
And it isn't just the folks in the Twin Cities under his spell. Ralph Sampson III, the 6-foot-11 son of that other Ralph Sampson, will play for the Gophers next year. Smith also has commitments from three other players, including two who are in junior college.
``Our plan is to do the best we can right now,'' Smith said. ``Does that mean third, fourth, first, second? I don't know.''
Ten years at one school may as well be a lifetime for a coach, but the Smiths have made a smooth transition to Minnesota. They are immersing themselves in charity work just as they did in Lexington, and are enjoying discovering a new city.
The hardest thing, Donna Smith said, was their decision to downsize. With their three sons grown, the couple traded their seven-bedroom house for a two-bedroom condo.
``I had no idea,'' Donna Smith said, laughing. ``I thought I was organized. I thought I had an idea of what I was going to keep and how I'm going to give this to so-and-so, and it didn't work out that way.''
But as her husband likes to tell his players, life is all about change. What matters is how you adapt to it.
``Clearly I miss the people (at Kentucky) and I miss the players, but I've got another family here,'' Tubby Smith said. ``It's just another chance to touch other peoples' lives and for me to draw from other people as well. It's a two-way street: I get a lot from them and, hopefully, I'll be able to give a lot back.''