Lack of talented players caught up with Tubby at Minnesota, as it did at UK

By  | 

The Tubby Smith era at Minnesota certainly had a different ending than the one he left behind in Lexington. One day, he was Kentucky’s head coach and the next – he was wearing a maroon and gold tie and becoming the top Gopher in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The results were a bit different as well, but they both ended for the same reason: Not enough talented players.

Tubby Smith is one of the college game’s great gentlemen, as well as a strong X’s-and-O’s guy. Haters desperately cling to the notion that he won the 1998 NCAA championship “with Rick Pitino’s players.”

Fine. They were recruited and coached the year(s) previously by Pitino. But Smith arrived and installed a new offensive system, a new defense, new out-of-bounds plays and an entirely different approach. “We played hard for Coach P because we were afraid of him,” former Wildcat Cameron Mills once told me. “We played hard for Coach Smith because we loved him.”

Everybody who encountered him more than once or twice when he was the UK coach, it seemed, had a Tubby Smith story. This is my favorite:

He would come to the TV station each week to tape his show, on a Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the team’s schedule. One day, the show’s director, Bob, noticed a crowd of young children beginning to fill up the studio.

He was told the group was a class that had won a sponsored contest – and the prize was a chance to meet Coach Smith at the taping of his TV show.

Does the coach know about this? Bob asked. He was told by the account executive who had coordinated the contest, Oh, it’ll be fine.

However, on that day, Smith briskly walked in the back door and, upon finding Bob, asked if there was any way to expedite the process, as he had a plane to catch – there was a recruit he had to see.

Bob apologetically told the coach about the kids waiting on him in the studio, but assured Tubby they could re-schedule. Before he could make a move, Tubby told him to wait, and pulled out his phone, calling his secretary. In a matter of minutes, they trip had been re-scheduled so the coach could meet with the children.

It’s not exactly détente, but it says a lot.

Mills is one of several ex-Cats who told me they find both hilarious and insulting the notion that they were on basketball auto-pilot when Smith arrived, cruising to the national title. They say it belittles, not just their coach, but the amount of work it took for them to make the changeover, as well as the actual effort involved in overcoming second-half deficits in victories over Duke (regional championship), Stanford (Final Four) and Utah (championship game).

But take a look at that roster, as well as subsequent Kentucky teams coached by Smith, and then glance at the last six years of Golden Gopher basketball and you’ll find your answer as to where it went wrong for him in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It didn’t take 10,000 talented players to turn things around, but it did take more than he ever had.

The ’98 championship team included future NBA veterans Nazr Mohammed and Scott Padgett, as well as Final Four Most Outstanding Player Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Allen Edwards and Mills. Smith went on to recruit the likes of other NBA veterans such as Tayshaun Prince, Chuck Hayes, Keith Bogans, Kelenna Azubuike and Rajan Rondo, as well as Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Patrick Patterson, who signed under Billy Gillispie not long after Smith left.

Gillispie proved that just because you’re the Kentucky coach, it doesn’t mean you’ll easily fill the roster with all-stars. But it’s a lot easier to convince top-notch players to matriculate as part of the best tradition in college basketball, instead of in the frigid north.

Minnesota Athletics Director Norwood Teague, the man who fired Tubby, is not the man who hired Tubby. The arrival of a new boss when you’re not exactly lighting up the league is never a good thing. The Gophers this season started 15-1 but then began their usual late-season, in-conference slide, which had become all too familiar in the Big 10, where UM never finished higher than sixth under Smith.

Teague’s resume’ includes Virginia Commonwealth, where he hired Shaka Smart, one of the hot young names in college coaching. Word is, he’ll either make a run at Smart (who already has turned down better jobs than Minnesota) or some other young up-and-comer. Check your NCAA brackets for potential candidates.

But it begs the question: Who would want this job? The only reason Smith took it, over the gig at Michigan (which was also open at the time), was so that he could hire son Saul as an assistant. Michigan had an anti-nepotism rule similar to the one at Kentucky. Tubby was determined to bring Saul on board, and needed a place where he could do it.

He also had wearied of the pressure to shake up his staff at Kentucky, following back-to-back seasons with double-digit losses. The assistants working for Smith at the time he left UK had failed him when it came to bringing in top-flight talent, which is the fault of the head coach as much as the staff.

At first, Smith brought talented recruiting classes to Kentucky. But they dwindled toward the end.

The next guy at Minnesota has to be able to somehow convince at least a few of the nation’s most talented prep stars to sign on at a place where the practice facility Tubby was promised in 2007 is still in the planning stages. And they’ll be playing their games in historic Williams Arena, where the Gopher basketball program took up residence in 1928, making it the oldest arena in the Big 10 and one of the oldest in the country.

Bells and whistles are great, but when you’re talking success, it always comes back to talent. Of course, those same bells and whistles can be vital in the recruiting process, as well as the key to any great real estate venture: Location, location, location.

Where would you rather play your college hoops? Lexington? Bloomington? Chapel Hill?

Or Minneapolis?

Not enough big-time players chose the latter, which is why a good man is out of a job this morning. If he coaches again – and he will, if he chooses – wherever he lands, the challenge will remain the same.

No matter how great your reputation for being a straight shooter (richly deserved) or tactician, if you don’t have players, you don’t have enough.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM. )