Tubby Smith agreed to become the new head basketball coach at the University of Memphis on Thursday morning.
One day earlier, when his name surfaced as the likely replacement for Josh Pastner, reaction from local fans — while hardly unanimous — acquired some rather eye-popping expressions.
This one was my favorite:
@geoff_calkins Clownshow on Normal Avenue. They literally could not have made a more uninspiring hire.
— Tom Simpson (@simpsontom4118) April 13, 2016
Ah, the ol’ use of the word literally when it isn’t remotely applicable.
Memphis couldn’t have made a more uninspiring hire?
You mean the coach who took Texas Tech from nowhere to the NCAA tournament in a few swift seasons? Texas Tech has never made the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four. The Red Raiders have won NCAA tournament games in just three of the past 40 seasons. Texas Tech is an impoverished basketball program… and Tubby won there relatively quickly.
An uninspiring hire, huh?
You mean one of only two men to ever take Georgia to the Sweet 16 — and during a tenure which lasted only two seasons in Athens?
You mean the coach whose three NCAA appearances at Minnesota look pretty darn good in light of the way Richard Pitino has started in Minneapolis — and in light of facilities upgrades he never got from the Gophers’ dysfunctional athletic department?
You mean the coach who has made more Sweet 16 appearances at Tulsa (two) than any other Tulsa coach in history?
You mean the coach who — when he makes the NCAAs at Memphis (it’s a when, not an if) — will become the first man to ever lead six schools to the Big Dance?
You mean the coach who — unlike Lon Kruger (the only other man to take five schools to Bracketville) — has won a national title, and won it at the school where, just 26 years earlier, an avowed segregationist (shown on the far right of this photo against Texas Western in 1966) concluded a career of over 40 years?
Memphis couldn’t have made a more uninspiring hire than that coach, the man who brought a national championship banner to Adolph Rupp’s Arena in Lexington?
How quickly — and severely — some people lose track of things.
Now, with that point having been established, let’s delve into the deeper, more difficult, more complex conversation about Tubby Smith’s career, which has likely caught its last train to Memphis at the age of 64.
The man on the left, Keith Bogans, was the engine behind a powerful 2003 Kentucky team coached by Tubby. The Wildcats were a No. 1 seed. They went to the Metrodome for the Midwest Regional, just as Rick Pitino’s team had done in 1996 when the Wildcats roared to the national championship.
Kentucky disposed of Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, but Bogans got injured. He was unable to be of use to his team in the Elite Eight. A man named Dwyane Wade slashed through a dispirited Kentucky team which had lost both its soul and its strength. Tubby’s best Kentucky team fell short of the Final Four.
Two years later, Kelenna Azubuike lost track of the clock when the Wildcats had a chance to beat Michigan State in a double-overtime Elite Eight classic. The 2005 run was a very, very good run for Tubby… but at Kentucky, Final Fours are (rightly) the expected standard. Smith never got as close to the Final Four in the remaining years of his stay in Lexington. He’d win a first-round game, but that wasn’t close to cutting it.
A man named John Calipari — who just happened to be coaching at the Memphis program Tubby now leads — represented a massive and undeniable upgrade. Kentucky is once again the king-sized goliath it is supposed to be.
Tubby’s Kentucky career was in many ways a microcosm of his larger career, sans that one heaven-kissed 1998 season when his “Comeback Cats” clawed past all sorts of obstacles to win it all.
Tubby Smith has been a very, very good coach, doing lots of things other men have rarely if ever done in college basketball. He’s not a top-tier, first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Fame coach. His career has been too bumpy to deserve the most lavish levels of praise, solely in relationship to the high-end accomplishments which are expected of elite coaches. Yet, if measured against a lot of other coaches just outside the gates of that unquestioned top tier, Tubby might be first in line.
It’s not an easy career to categorize if you’re focused only on the wins and the losses, and especially the Final Four as a marker of coaching quality.
However, what should get Tubby Smith into the Basketball Hall of Fame — and which makes him a greatly underappreciated figure in the coaching profession — is that his career is undeniably important.
What it lacks in terms of the spectacular, it makes up for with the heft of its significance. Memphis is a college basketball destination where significant people ought to coach, and in that respect, the Tigers should be quite happy to have Tubby in charge of their program.
The man you see above is Nolan Richardson, the second African-American head coach to win the NCAA tournament (in 1994). Tubby became the third, four years later.
Tubby Smith’s career was inspired in part by Richardson, who succeeded at Tulsa in the early 1980s, before Smith later flourished there in the early 1990s and built the blocks of his own head coaching ascendancy. Tulsa — while lacking high-end achievements over the course of its history as a program — is the unexpected origin of Tubby’s remarkable journey as a head coach. It is also the source of that journey’s magnitude in college basketball history.
Tulsa, you see, rocketed to prominence in 1994 and 1995, when Smith led the Golden Hurricane to consecutive Sweet 16s and used that success to land the Georgia job following the 1995 NCAA Tournament. Steve Robinson — also an African-American coach — didn’t knock the ball out of the park the way Tubby did at Tulsa. However, when he left in 1997, Tubby — following two hugely successful seasons at Georgia — landed the Kentucky job after Rick Pitino, one of his mentors, made the ill-fated jump to the NBA’s Boston Celtics.
Everyone in the profession could see how far Tubby Smith had climbed in such a short time, using Tulsa as the original catapult.
A man named Bill Self took the Tulsa job in 1997. In three seasons, he guided the Golden Hurricane to their first — and only — Elite Eight. Self used that run to land the Illinois job, where he made the Elite Eight with the Illini in his first season on the job, in 2001.
Two years later, in 2003 — after Roy Williams answered Dean Smith’s call to return to Papa and North Carolina — Self landed the Kansas job.
In his fifth season, Self joined Tubby as ex-Tulsa coaches who got their start at the mid-major level and worked their way to a national title at a Cadillac program.
Tubby Smith changed careers beyond his own.
He changed perceptions of what was possible at various programs, Tulsa being the wellspring from which other opportunities and achievements flowed.
He was in some ways a follower (relative to Nolan Richardson), but in other ways, he was a leader. He’s gone to places where it’s very tough to succeed (Georgia, Texas Tech), and has succeeded handsomely.
No, he’s not the master showman and recruiter Pitino and Calipari became at Kentucky. That’s the main weakness Memphis fans are worried about.
Yet, in the rush to express concern about recruiting ability, fans often forget the other half of the equation: being able to coach that talent. Tubby’s never had a problem developing players and programs, no matter where he’s gone.
The man who put a banner in Rupp Arena and could soon become the first man to take six schools to the NCAA tournament isn’t the best coach you’ve ever seen. He doesn’t present the smoothest career path or the absence of the nomadic tendencies shared by fellow AAC coach Larry Brown at SMU.
Yet, Tubby Smith’s career has been very, very good. It’s also one of the more significant careers in recent college basketball memory.
Memphis didn’t get Gregg Marshall or Buzz Williams or Archie Miller.
The program landed a pretty reasonable alternative… and one of the more important men in the past 30 years of his sport’s existence.