Gophers hire instant credibility with Tubby Smith

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

The hiring of Kentucky's Tubby Smith as the next Gophers men's basketball coach gives a significant boost to Minnesota's reputation after years of decline.

Tubby Smith

Tubby Smith enters the University of Minnesota's Bierman Field Athletic Complex Thursday evening. In the blue shirt is Tom Wistrcill, associate athletics director for external relations.

Photo: Renée Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Joel Maturi's goal when he began looking for a new men's basketball coach was to give the program "a shot in the arm." The University of Minnesota athletic director certainly accomplished that Thursday.

Instead of landing a hot, young coach, Maturi hired Tubby Smith, the current -- but embattled -- coach at traditional college basketball powerhouse Kentucky. Smith replaces Jim Molinari, the interim coach since Dan Monson was fired Nov. 30.

Smith, who arrived in the Twin Cities on Thursday afternoon, will be formally introduced today at noon at Williams Arena. He has agreed to a seven-year contract worth $1.7 million per season, plus incentives for both basketball and academic performance.

Smith won the 1998 national title and went to 10 straight NCAA tournaments at Kentucky, but was under pressure after failing to get to the Sweet 16 the past two seasons.

He left Kentucky with four years left on his contract.

"You always want to be wanted," Smith told the Lexington Herald Leader. "You know they have a need."

It's a move that brings instant credibility to a Gophers program that has been in a downward spiral for much of the past decade.

After reaching the 1997 Final Four, the program was gutted by an academic fraud scandal and virtually dropped off the map in the Twin Cities sports scene.

While Monson improved the off-court image of the program, he didn't have enough on-the-court success and accepted a buyout package seven games into this season.

In 16 years as a head coach, Smith has a record of 387-145 (.727) and entered this season with the 10th highest winning percentage among active coaches. Only Arizona coach Lute Olson has a longer streak of consecutive 20-win seasons than Smith's 14.

A strong defensive coach and motivator, Smith led the Wildcats to four Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA tournament, five Southeastern Conference titles and five SEC tournament titles in 10 years at Kentucky. Before arriving in Lexington, Smith -- who has never had a losing season -- reached the Sweet 16 at both Tulsa and Georgia.

"As soon as you say Tubby Smith ... it's a big name," Gophers guard Lawrence McKenzie said. "He brings a lot of respect and experience to our program.

"He definitely brings a lot of experience. He knows what it takes to win. He's won a national championship. We need that type of aura in our program."

Why Minnesota?

Why would Smith leave one of college basketball's blue bloods for a school that went 9-22 this season and finished ninth or worse in the Big Ten in three of the past four seasons?

For all of the success Smith had at Kentucky -- he reached 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments and never lost in the first round -- he was also routinely criticized.

His national title was dismissed by some because the team consisted of players recruited by former coach Rick Pitino. Smith was criticized for not returning to the Final Four since. He was panned for not landing the elite of the elite high school players.

"As much as he's done at Kentucky, it was never enough and it probably wouldn't be for anybody," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who serves with Smith on the board of directors of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. "It's no fun to live that way. Did it totally surprise me that he'd leave there? No.

"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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