Donna Smith is no shrinking violet.
She doesn’t really care much to deploy this characteristic in defense of her husband of 37 years, Gopher basketball coach Tubby Smith. However, critics of their three sons during their college ball days needed to tread carefully.
The kids are all grown coaches now. She and Coach are enjoying living within walking distance of the U and downtown Minneapolis. Coach had the unique experience of seeing Prince perform for the first time, during his recent stand at the Dakota. Donna had previously seen Prince perform in Atlanta a long time ago. She gets out more.
While the Smiths are big Prince fans, it’s not surprising that they are even bigger fans of their first grandchild, a toddler who has granddad wrapped around her little finger when she doesn’t have him rolling on the floor.
Some basketball fans have little empathy for what goes on in a coach’s family after losses. Maybe some will be more sympathetic after viewing my startribune.com/video or reading this Q&A with Donna Smith, not that she can’t take care of herself with fans who want to jaw. “Go Gophers,” as her cellphone voice mail states.
Q How do you avoid going all Gisele Bundchen [Tom Brady’s supermodel wife, who ripped N.Y. Giant hecklers] when fans and sports folk start talking smack about your favorite coach?
A Weeeeell. First of all, last time I checked this was America. So you have choices. If you choose to involve yourself with all of that, that’s what you choose to do. However, it’s pretty sad around here the morning after we lose a game. You’re slow to get up. You don’t necessarily want to read the papers. You have choices. You can choose to look at the news or you can choose to go to other forms of entertainment. It was wonderful the morning after we beat Indiana and the picture in the paper was just spectacular. I was like, “That’s going to make a great poster.” You have your good and your bad days and that’s just what comes with it. That’s why it’s sports.
Q What’s harder: being a parent or being the wife of a big-time basketball coach?
A When my kids were playing it was tough being a parent. Many times that would come first and foremost. When Saul was at Kentucky and G.G. was playing for the University of Georgia and Tubby’s coaching at Kentucky, you stomach when people say negative things about your husband. He’s getting paid to be in that position and he knew that before he took the job. [Raised voice] When someone starts talking bad about your kid and you’re mom and sitting in the stands, aw man, sometimes it can just be fighting words. I’ve never been one to sit there and be mild and meek. That’s not my personality. I have a real big mouth and I can be just as loud as the next person. One time, we’re at Kentucky but we are playing at Tennessee and there are a couple of grown men in the student section. It was obvious those were not their seats; kind of like they got those tickets from somebody else. And boy they really started talking about Saul. And the game’s almost over and I had just had it up to here. I just turned around and lit into them and they were in such shock. They could not believe that I said something and the way I did it. I felt good about myself afterward. And they sat down [she said with astonishment] maybe knowing [they were] talking about my child. You learn to have a thick skin. You can’t be in this business unless you’ve got a thick skin. But when someone is messing with your kid, it’s different.
Q What was the hardest thing you and Coach endured during your time at Kentucky?
A One of the hardest things? Oh, when you’re playing the second ESPN game during a weeknight. It doesn’t begin until 9. It’s over at 11. By the time you get on the plane it’s about 1. We played against Florida down in Gainesville. Lost. We got back there was a fresh blanket of snow [yes, in Kentucky] and you could see how someone had walked in our yard. There weren’t any tire marks. There were like two sets [of footprints]. Someone had placed a whole bunch of “for sale” signs; I guess they had gathered them. That was hard. That was like: wow. I’ll never forget it. Tubby sat up at the kitchen table just about all night. You could tell it bothered him. It’s sports. You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, that’s how it goes.
Q Have you ever played H-O-R-S-E with Coach?
A I am not that good of a basketball player. I was a cheerleader and I played flute.
Q What has been the most enjoyable thing — away from basketball — for you in the time you’ve been in Minnesota?
A We are downtown. We are close to all kinds of things. We can walk over to the Twins game. We can walk over to the Guthrie. Football is not that far. When the weather is nice — I’m not trying to sit here and say we brave the elements — it’s easy to do. You get used to it and you get spoiled. We like that.
Q Tell me something about Coach, away from basketball, that no one knows?
A When our daughter-in-law went into labor, Tubby was in Florida recruiting and I was here. We both just jumped on planes and immediately did a beeline to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The waiting room doesn’t have sofas. Each chair is a separate individual chair with armrests, so there is no such thing as stretching your legs out. We were like any other proud grandparents-to-be just waiting. They thought we were her parents. If they needed anything we were right there. From that moment on we have just been silly. It’s a special title, your new job of being a grandparent. God’s given me a second chance to, like, to do it right.
Q I hear the grandbaby has Coach so wrapped around her finger she walks on your piano?
A Yes. [ Spoken with astonishment.] He would allow her to just walk on it. She’s 2 now so she’s a little bit more reserved. She’ll be like, “Paw Paw, roll like this” and he’ll be down on the floor rolling. Killing himself. It’s funny.
Q When Coach falls asleep what’s your favorite source of entertainment?
A I sometimes will put on podcasts of Jason and Alexis and listen to them on 107.1 [FM]. I just think they are hilarious. … Now I can listen to them while I exercise. They keep me laughing; just so talented.
Q Who’s a better dancer: you or Coach?
A Tubby. Tubby’s a great dancer. If we’re at a party he will pretty much want to dance on every song. All the women love dancing with him. He’s a good dancer, he’s tall. Women like to dance with tall people who can dance. He can do the twirls; waltz, two-step. If you are with him and you have your dancing shoes on, by the fourth song you need a break. Your feet are killing you.
Q I wasn’t that wild about coach’s Harlem Shake.
A That was so funny to watch the whole team celebrate like that. Trevor [Mbakwe, a Gopher forward] picked him and threw him across his shoulder like he was rag doll. My goodness. Oh, we laughed about that. That was the funniest part.
Q By what name do you call your husband when he’s in trouble with you?
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “The Buzz.”