Tubby Smith has been at it — this business of coaching basketball — for 39 years, a seasoned veteran whose youthful exuberance, which has always characterized his personality, remains supreme as he is driven with due diligence to elevate the Minnesota Gophers to a lofty standing in Big Ten competition.
During a recent Sunday afternoon practice at Williams Arena, which was built in 1929, Tubby coaxed his team though scrimmage drills in measured tones that reflected encouragement.
“This is the way you should do it,” he demonstrated to a point guard whose pass to the inside failed in its trajectory and allowed the defense to interrupt the flow of the play to the basket.
Ever the teacher with firmness and an economy of words — but without an edge — Tubby’s demeanor and coaching style, along with an intense work ethic, have brought him success everywhere he has landed. People in the business like and respect him, which has led to varied opportunity.
C.M. Newton, a basketball icon in SEC circles, recommended to Vince Dooley in 1995 that he hire Tubby from Tulsa, where the coach had been successful. Tubby wanted the opportunity to work in the Southeastern Conference for one reason,
“You always want to coach and play against the best, and the SEC had become a very competitive league,” he said. “I knew coach Dooley had played basketball in college at Auburn and wanted to build a strong basketball presence. The league had outstanding coaches and had upgraded facilities.”
Newton, then the athletic director at Kentucky, recommended Tubby with a caveat: “If I ever need a basketball coach, I am going to look in Tubby’s direction.”
At that time, Rick Pitino was his coach, but when Pitino moved to Boston to coach the Celtics two years later, Newton only had to make one call to find his replacement.
Tubby produced right away, winning a national championship in his first season, which brought about the predictable good news/bad news reaction. Naturally, there was the hue and cry that he won with Pitino’s players.
Success continued, but when Tubby did not return to the Final Four, the fan base failed to appreciate five SEC regular season titles, five SEC tournament titles, six Sweet 16 trips and four Elite Eight appearances. They grumbled about his defense-oriented, deliberate style, among other things.
They ignored such things as Tubby getting to 100 victories quicker than any Wildcats coach except the legendary Adolph Rupp. Nonetheless, opportunity awaited Tubby as it has all his coaching life, and when he resigned at Kentucky in 2007, Minnesota welcomed him with open arms.
They love this Scotland, Md., native in the Twin Cities. On a recent weekend, he attended a Minnesota Vikings game, leaving in the third quarter to conduct basketball practice. After practice, he was off to a Bruce Springsteen concert. He was hosting contributors to the Tubby Smith Foundation at the football game and the concert, but that reinforces his affection for life in the Twin Cities for him and his wife, Donna.
“We love it here,” he said on the way home. “There is so much to do.”
Their condo overlooks the Mississippi River, where an early morning view gives him inspiration for the day. Raised in a family of 17 children, Tubby lives life by accentuating the positive. The glass is always half full, never half empty with him.
He is confident his Minnesota teams will move up in the Big Ten standings for a number of reasons, not just because of his belief in himself and his team.
“There’s really good basketball talent in this state,” he said with a smile as he headed off for an evening with Bruce Springsteen.
“But I don’t want to talk too much about that,” he chuckled. “I don’t want anybody else finding out about that.”
The expectations at Minnesota are nothing like those in Lexington, Ky., but don’t forget — Tubby has the highest expectations of himself, which is the way it has been at every stop in his coaching career.
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.