University of Minnesota
Tubby Smith, now in his 20th year as a head coach, loves teaching his players and feels particularly at home during practices, which for the men's basketball team are typically in the morning before classes.
Photos: courtesy Eric Miller, University Athletics
Staring down adversity
Tubby Smith teaches and leads—and wins—at the reenergized Barn
By Rick Moore
It’s a mild, late-January Monday evening, and inside the T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant behind the Mall of America, the crowd gathered for the weekly Tubby Smith radio show is surprisingly festive.
Sure, the Gopher men’s basketball team just won its third game in a row to push its record above .500 in the über-competitive Big Ten conference. But a day earlier the Gophers learned that senior co-captain and defensive whiz Al Nolen would need surgery to repair a broken foot, further depleting an already thin lineup.
So why all the hearty laughter and good cheer? Simple enough. Despite an often challenging, injury-riddled season, Smith’s Gophers continue to be a feel-good story, due in large part to the steadying influence of their popular head coach.
Smith arrived in Minnesota in March 2007—an unexpected bombshell of a hire that electrified the fan base for men’s basketball. Here was a marquee coach just a decade removed from winning a national championship in his first year at Kentucky—a hotbed for college basketball—coming to a program languishing in the second tier of the Big Ten.
At the end of his introductory press conference at Williams Arena, students spontaneously chanted “Tub-by! Tub-by! Tub-by!” Four years later they populate “The Barnyard” (the student section at the Barn), wearing gold shirts that say “Tubbytown, pop. 14,625”— a reference to the seating capacity at Williams Arena.
Smith has picked up where he left off at Kentucky. In his first season at the U in 2007-08, he brought a team that had won nine games the year before to a 20-win season—the largest single-season turnaround in school history.
He has led the Gophers to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons, Minnesota’s first back-to-back tourney appearances in 20 years. His streak of consecutive 20-win seasons now stands at 17 (he trails only Dean Smith’s 27 and Lute Olson’s 20 in that category), and he has amassed a career record of 466-187.
A teacher first
Smith’s easy-going, affable nature at the microphone is offset by a focused, no-nonsense approach on the court. And that’s abetted by an uncanny ability to communicate without saying anything—a technique widely known as the “Tubby stare.”
“It was a bit of a shocker, the intensity he brought,” says Spencer Tollackson, an analyst for Gopher radio broadcasts who played his senior year under Smith. “Coach Smith is all about winning and all about effort and doing the right thing. … There’s always a goal in mind with him, and I think that’s why he’s able to get the most from his players.”
Smith is quick to note that he loves teaching players and being in practice. As for other labels … well, those can change with the moment.
“Players might call me strict, they might call me disciplined, but that’s part of being a successful team, a successful person,” he says. “Hopefully, they would say I’m a teacher first. I know I have to wear a lot of different hats, whether it’s father or mother or disciplinarian.
“I’m not here to be their friend, but I’d like to think that we’re friends, because I know in the end that’s what it’s about—the relationship that you build.”
Now in his 20th season as a head coach, the 59-year-old Smith feels he’s mellowed a bit with age, the occasional stare and stomp notwithstanding.
“I’m still confrontational because I think you have to have that to make change,” he says. “But I think [as you age] the fight seems to be—it’s there, but it’s just not as fierce. [Laughs] You’re a little wiser. You fight with a different type of weapon now—with wisdom and that type of thing.”
Another batch of lemonade
With wisdom has come the ability to adapt, which has become job number one for Smith and this year’s Gophers, who are once again facing more than their share of injuries and distractions.
There was the season-ending knee injury to promising freshman Maurice Walker, the departure of proven scorer Devoe Joseph (who decided to transfer to Oregon), and then the loss of Nolen, which drastically undercuts the depth of the backcourt.
“I tell our players, ‘Expect the unexpected. Life sends you a lemon, you’ve gotta make lemonade out of it,’” Smith says. “That’s what we try to do. That’s the way I’ve lived my life, and that’s the way I’ve coached over the years.”
So far, so good. Heading into a midweek game at Indiana, the 18th-ranked Gophers were 16-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten, good for fourth place. They’ve been ranked in the top 25 for most of the season and have proved they can compete with anyone.
Moreover, they’ve energized the Barn with a hard-nosed, athletic style of basketball spiced by a formidable frontcourt, the sharpshooting of senior co-captain Blake Hoffarber, and the regular highlight-reel dunks by Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe.
“Our kids, they’ve had to regroup and rally quite a bit lately, and I think they’ve learned some valuable lessons,” Smith pointed out during that T.G.I. Friday’s radio broadcast. “It tells a lot about the character of our team that when someone goes down … our kids seem to rise up. That’s one thing I really appreciate and I’m proud [of] about this group of young men.”
It’s a group led by a kinder, gentler… Strike that. It’s led by a slightly less fierce coach who has a knack for breeding winning teams, even in the face of adversity.
And that sits well in Tubbytown, USA.
Smith talks with his team during a time-out at Williams Arena.