Four months after he walked away from the Kentucky bluegrass for the tundra in Minnesota, the prevailing theory among the thousands that have been offered up is that the pressure of winning finally got to Tubby Smith and he could no longer stand the heat in college basketball’s hottest kitchen. Why else would he trade Lexington for Minneapolis? Why else would he leave the tradition of seven national and 43 Southeastern Conference championships for a program that is best known for an ugly brawl that broke out in the middle of a game with Ohio State back in 1972?
Why would Tubby Smith leave one of college basketball’s glamor jobs where there is a mile-long waiting list of fannies that would kill to help fill a 24,000-seat arena for a program that seems to be a permanent first round host in the NIT? Why would he leave a job that sells itself for a job that requires a ton of selling? Is it the pressure? Is it the too high expectations of Kentucky basketball? Is it the life in a fish bowl every Kentucky coach has to live with?
All of those theories may have some credence, but only Tubby Smith knows for sure why he bolted the winningest program in college basketball history for a program with a history of under-achievement. Rather than talk about the reasons why, these days Tubby is pretty much taking on the old Satchel Paige philosophy: “Don’t look back, somebody might be gaining on you.”
He is the head coach at Minnesota, happy to be settled in and on the job in Minneapolis. He will tell you the colors have changed and the location is changed, but other than that, he’s pretty much doing what he’s always been doing. He would rather focus on the future than dwell on the could haves and should haves of the past. He doesn’t look back and his explanation for why he left is simple although lacking detail.
“It was the right decision for me and it’s a great decision for me,” said Tubby last Friday afternoon in North Augusta, South Carolina where he was watching the 2007 Nike Peach Jam at the Riverview Center. “Everybody has their opinions about why I left Kentucky and that’s part of life, but Tubby Smith did what was best for Tubby Smith and his family — this was what was right for me.”
He wasn’t fired or forced out at Kentucky. The Kentucky folks were as stunned when he announced he was bolting the bluegrass as the Minnesota fans were shocked that they had themselves a big time head coach that wears a national championship ring earned during his ten years on the job in Lexington. Only in the movies does the king leave the castle to dwell among the peasants.
In his first eight years at Kentucky, the Wildcats won a national championship (1998) and averaged 25 wins a season. By Kentucky standards, the last two years were somewhat disastrous — 44-25 will earn contract extensions at 90 percent of the schools in Division I but that doesn’t cut it with the Big Blue Nation. But, even though there were calls for his dismissal, Smith’s job was secure and he left on his own terms.
“I was in a position that I had security and I had the right in my contract to make a decision and to be able to leave when I wanted to leave,” he said. “Most guys don’t have that in their contract. Most guys leave because they were forced out or didn’t win or something of that nature. The choice I made, I made on my own free will because it was what I wanted to do.”
Toward the end of February, when it became obvious that the Wildcats weren’t in a position to compete for the SEC championship, writers in Louisville called for Tubby to be canned at the end of the year. Kentucky message boards heated white hot talking about Tubby Smith and the future of Wildcat basketball. Tubby had his defenders, but some of the talk got way out of hand. A good bit of the message board chatter was downright vicious, but if the talk got to him, you’ll never know it by his demeanor. He only has positive things to say about Kentucky.
“Kentucky is a great place … a wonderful place,” he said. “The fans were wonderful to me and to my family. I’ve got great memories that I’ll always cherish about Kentucky. I’ll always be thankful I had the chance to coach there.”
But he moved on and not to the NBA, a place that college basketball fans figured would be his next stop. Rather than the NBA, he chose to stay in college basketball at a place that has never made anyone’s top ten list of places to coach. He said the timing was right to go.
“You can get stagnant in the same place,” he said. “I’m not saying we were stagnant — I know I certainly didn’t feel stagnant — but the last couple of years we just didn’t win like we had the first eight years. Kelenna Azubuike left a year early (after the 2005 season) and we lost Chuck Hayes (graduation, 2005), one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever been around and one of the best kids I’ve ever coached, then last year Rajon Rondo left early. Those were tough losses for the program but that’s the nature of college basketball these days.
“Look what Billy Donovan did at Florida. He lost a couple of guys early (Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson) and he had to rely on guys that he brought in that had to be developed like (Al) Horford, (Joakim) Noah, (Lee) Humphrey and Taurean Green. He fit them in with Corey Brewer who was the most developed kid of the bunch and they all had to buy into a system. For him, all the pieces fit together just right and they had great chemistry. When you find the kids that fit well and the chemistry is there, great things can happen. We had that early on at Kentucky. We didn’t have it so much the last two years.”
The Kentucky disappointments have been replaced by the optimism in Minnesota. The last couple of years at Kentucky, everyone was wondering why? At Minnesota, with Tubby leading the way, they’re thinking why not?
“I think the future is very bright for the Gophers,” he said. “I feel good about it. I think the potential is there to win. If I didn’t believe we could do it there, I wouldn’t have taken the job. I think they have everything you need to have a great program and they’re hungry to maybe do some things they’ve never done before. I’m excited about going to work every day.”
Tubby Smith was and always has been a lunch pail kind of guy. He gets up in the morning every morning and goes to work. Nothing has really changed.
“I’m doing the same things I was doing at Kentucky,” he said. “I’m here at Peach Jam watching kids play basketball. I’m talking to my colleagues and talking to you like I do every year. Nothing’s really changed except where I’m coaching.”
He says the mission at Minnesota is the same one he’s had since he was encouraged by his coach at High Point College (Jerry Steele) to get into the coaching business. Jerry Steele played college basketball at Wake Forest under Bones McKinney. From a poor family, he parlayed hard work and determination into a basketball scholarship that was his ticket to a college degree. Jerry Steele knew how hard his mama and daddy worked all their lives and for him, coaching a game he loved was a wonderful thing, made possible by that college degree.
“Jerry Steele was a whistle while you work kind of coach,” Smith said. “He loved every moment of what he did. He had so much fun and made it so much fun that you never really felt that he was pushing you hard to be better although you look back and you can see that he was. He got so much out of you because he made it so much fun and I’ve tried to remember that.”
Wherever he’s gone in the coaching profession, he’s tried to make basketball fun and he’s also tried to help kids see it as a ticket that can take them to a better life.
“You don’t get in this business unless you want to lead, teach and guide and spend the time with young people and be someone that helps them get to where they need to be in life,” he said. “Coaching is about seeing young people reach their dreams and potential in the classroom, on the court and to becoming good citizens that can take care of themselves and their families. I tell recruits the same thing I’ve always told them — you don’t have to come here and be anything special, but you do have to come here with a job to do and finish your job. Play some basketball and hopefully play it well. Go to class and learn how to do something. Get a degree and then have the ability to take care of yourself and your family.
“No one will ever recognize you or reward you unless you finish the job. So, it’s about finishing the drill, finishing the paper, finishing the test, get your degree and then go out in the world and take care of your family and your obligations to the best of your ability.”
At Minnesota, the expectations aren’t as nearly high as the ones he had at Kentucky and maybe there won’t be half as much pressure to win and win big, but if you spend a few minutes talking with Tubby, you understand that he’s content with the decision he’s made and the job he’s expected to do at Minnesota.
“I was happy at Kentucky but a chance for a good change came about and it was the right decision to make,” he said. “I’m happy with the decision. I’m happy to be at Minnesota. I’ll always have nothing but good things to say about Kentucky and thanks for the chance they gave me, but this is a great situation, too, and I’m really happy to be where I am. This was the right thing to do for Tubby Smith.”