Jim Souhan: New coach worth a cheer

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2008 - 12:02 AM

Tubby Smith has the U on the upswing, and he looks even better when compared to his predecessor here and successor at Kentucky.

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Tubby Smith is 10-3 in his first season as Gophers men’s basketball coach, a record made more impressive when compared to Dan Monson’s 3-10 record this season at Long Beach State and Billy Gillispie’s 6-7 record as Smith’s replacement at Kentucky.

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If you could be anyone on the Twin Cities sports scene, who would you be? (Present company excepted.)

Johan Santana, with a $150 million contract awaiting? Bob Naegele, with a home in Naples and an arena that automatically sells out? Adrian Peterson, with speed and moves on loan from a higher power?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The person you want to be today is Tubby Smith, whose reputation is thriving not just because of what he is, but because of who he is not.

To put it another way, Tubby is the meat in an ineptitude sandwich.

Tubby will preside over his first Big Ten men's basketball game at Williams Arena tonight against Northwestern. His Gophers -- and there is no question of ownership here, Smith has already put a vise grip on the program -- are 10-3 and coming off an impressively tenacious loss at Michigan State.

There is no such thing as a moral victory, but there are telling losses, and this was one. Smith is said (no, I don't get the Big Ten Network, either) to have jumped players who made mistakes, inspiring the term "The Tubby Stare."

The Gophers' 10-3 record is largely the product of a soft schedule, but there is no question that Minnesota is playing harder, and playing better defense, than it has since Clem Haskins was dismissed.

While Smith has made an immediate difference in Minnesota, the men who preceded and succeeded him have done just as much to polish his image as Smith himself.

Dan Monson took over an NCAA tournament team in Long Beach State. This year, in his first season, he's 3-10 and 0-2 in the Big West Conference, and 0-8 on the road, and has a four-game losing streak.

Does that sound familiar? Monson lost his last five games as Gophers coach, leaving with a 2-5 record that year, and went 5-11 in his last Big Ten season. He went 118-106 overall and 44-68 in Big Ten play at Minnesota.

Smith has had the good fortune of following Monson at The Barn. We knew he would look good by comparison. What is more surprising is that Smith's reputation has also benefitted from comparisons with his successor at Kentucky, Billy Gillispie.

Gillispie took Kentucky by storm when he left Texas A&M to replace Smith in Lexington, epicenter of the mentally imbalanced basketball universe. That storm has turned into a hurricane of losses, including embarrassing defeats against Gardner-Webb, UAB and San Diego.

Not San Diego State. San Diego, which compares in size but not athletic tradition to Eden Prairie High School.

A recent offering from Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay was entitled, "If Gillispie Has a Plan, It's Invisible To The Naked Eye."

Kentucky is 6-7, meaning the Wildcats enter Southeastern Conference play with a losing record for the first time since 1988-89.

On a conference call Monday, Gillispie said: "We have plenty of players here to play better than we have. That's my responsibility to make sure we do play better whether we have injuries or not."

When asked whether he anticipated such struggles, Gillispie said, "We definitely do not have a complete roster." Then he added, "Our roster's been OK. We should have played much better."

In October, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl called Kentucky "the team to beat" in the SEC. Asked if he is surprised by the Wildcats' losing, Pearl admitted, "A little bit."

Those willing to excuse Monson and Gillispie will cite roster turnover and injuries, but college coaches make their contract demands based on wins and losses, so records are fair game.

As Tubby prepares for his first Big Ten game at Williams, here's the bottom line:

Monson 3-10.

Gillispie 6-7.

Smith 10-3.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • jsouhan@startribune.com

  • GOPHERS VS. NORTHWESTERN 8 tonight • Williams Arena • TV: Big Ten Network (830-AM)

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