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Continued: Gophers hire instant credibility with Tubby Smith

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 23, 2007 - 12:06 AM

"He's tough, he's good, he runs a clean program, he's great. I'm sounding like I'm going to be his recruiting coordinator. I just love him. To me, he's a special guy. I think it's great for our league; it's great for Minnesota."

Those sentiments were echoed by Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders, long rumored as a candidate for the job.

"Being an alumnus, that's a great selection for them," Saunders told reporters before the Pistons' game at Houston on Thursday night. "He's going to really invigorate that city, put a lot of enthusiasm back into that program. ... It's going to take awhile, when you're where they're at as far as not winning many games. It's going to take a little bit of time, but that's a great choice for them."

The deal appears to have come together very quickly. A Kentucky spokesman told reporters in Lexington that Smith met with Wildcats athletic director Mitch Barnhart on Wednesday night and gave no indication he was leaving.

Maturi, who will not comment until today, called Barnhart on Thursday morning and asked for permission to speak with Smith.

Smith, whose first name is Orlando, met with his team and staff in Lexington on Thursday afternoon and then boarded a private plane and headed to Minnesota.

Significant rebuilding

Maturi clearly used the strategy that you have to spend money to make money, as Smith's financial package should place him in the top one-third of the Big Ten.

Early indications are that Smith will rejuvenate a fan base that had grown apathetic.

After averaging near-capacity crowds throughout the 1990s, attendance dropped significantly at the 14,625-seat Williams Arena. This past season, the Gophers averaged only 10,438 tickets sold and had only two crowds larger than 12,000.

The number of actual bodies in the building was often significantly less than the announced attendance.

"This was once the hottest ticket in town," former Gophers captain Al Nuness said. "The last couple years, I couldn't give away Gophers tickets. I think you're going to see an immediate turnaround now. Anyone who knows Tubby Smith, and the potential of this program, better get back in line for season tickets."

In addition to rebuilding interest, Smith has a lot of work to do as a coach.

This past season was a winter filled with low-lights, including an exhibition loss to Division II Winona State, a school-record for most losses in a season, the fewest victories in 20 years and a season-ending nine-game losing streak.

But now they have that shot in the arm.

Staff writers Dennis Brackin and Chip Scoggins contributed to this report.

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