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CMR Exclusive: 1-on-1 with Tubby Smith

Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

Coach Tubby Smith’s name is penned in a very short list of coaches who have taken four different programs to the NCAA tournament. If Texas Tech has their way this season, Smith will find himself in more elite company, becoming just the second coach in history to lead five programs to a NCAA Tournament bid. His resume would then include 18 big dances in the last 23 seasons. He half-jokingly said that a coach can only reach lofty goals like that when they will not, or cannot keep the same job for too long. Nevertheless, it is a grand accomplishment that speaks to his ability to adapt and conquer wherever he may be.

Named Big 12 Coach of the Year and Sporting News’ National Coach of the Year for the quick turnaround he has brought to the Texas Tech Red Raiders, it is obvious that Tubby Smith still has what it takes to bring out the best in his players. After not getting the fairy tale ending at Minnesota, (although he insists that the parting was amicable and speaks fondly of his time there) he has bounced back. In just three seasons, he has managed to rise to the top, receiving accolades from his peers and media alike. He humbly accepts personal acknowledgements and says, “It is an honor to get that kind of respect,” but Smith is quick to praise everyone around him, calling the program’s turnaround a “true team effort.” Maybe most of all, he feels he owes a great deal of his achievements to his team. “We were selected to finish last in the league [in the pre-season],” Smith replied kindly.

“I owe a lot of it to the players. They are the ones who have probably overachieved in a lot of ways, but they believe. They believe in themselves, they believe in the program, they believe in each other. That’s just the beauty of it. Its not about ‘me.’ Its about ‘we.'”

But, this success did not come to fruition over night. Serious changes had to be made within the Texas Tech’s basketball program, and Smith says it all started with putting academics first. “The program had sustained some [NCAA violations], so we need to become compliant first of all and get our players in a good place all around,” he said. Next task for Smith was defining a purpose. “We had to ask ourselves and ask our players, ‘What are you doing here and what are we doing here?’ and establish some consistency and continuity across the board so that the public, the administration, and the players would get the same message; we were going to do things the right way. We were going to act right, we were gonna talk right, we were gonna walk right. We were going to act like winners and hold them accountable to that.” It may have not happened in the blink of an eye, but over the course of three quick seasons, Coach Tubby Smith took a disheveled program in desperate need of leadership and led them straight out of their troubles into a respectable, upstanding, potential tournament team.

Smith's son and former UK Baskeball player, Saul, now coaches along side his Dad at Texas Tech. Photo courtesy of UK Athletics.

Smith’s son and former UK Baskeball player, Saul, now coaches along side his Dad at Texas Tech. Photo courtesy of UK Athletics.

Over his twenty-four years serving as head coach, he says his coaching style is much the same, although he concedes that he probably has softened in his latter years. Don’t be fooled; the “death stare” is still alive and well, but it’s not used as often has it once was. He chalks a lot of that up to changing times. Between the advancement of social media, summer leagues, and AAU ball, he says the incoming players are exposed to a lot of criticism and critiques before they ever beckon his court. “Don’t get me wrong. They still need to be taught discipline, they still need to do the work, and they’ll have to put in the time, and I coach all that. But, if [the players] can compartmentalize all the feedback and use it in a constructive way, it can be helpful to them as a player and to me as a coach.”

Photo courtesy of UK Althletics.

Photo courtesy of UK Althletics.

At sixty-four years young, Smith has no plans of slowing down or retiring anytime soon. “Coaches are coaching these days anymore well into their seventies,” he said, “and I’m in very good health. As long as I still feel like I can contribute something, give something, or teach something, I’ll be here doing this. I love it. I really love it.”

“At Kentucky, its about maintaining the integrity and tradition that was established even before Rupp…”

When asked about his time at Kentucky, he spoke sweetly of his nine seasons. He called Kentucky Basketball “the greatest program in college basketball” and “a program of integrity and great tradition”. He says he is honored to have a part in it. In true Tubby fashion, he did not name certain games or big wins when asked about his fondest memories, but recalled people he met and relationships he built throughout his tenure in Lexington. “Equipment manager, Bill Keightley is unforgettable. My assistant, Marta McMakin is unforgettable. All the players, all the fans, and the feeling in Rupp are things that I’ll always remember. At Kentucky, its about maintaining the integrity and tradition that was established even before Rupp. Being there and being a part of that legacy is a special thing.” He went on to praise John Calipari, saying, “He’s taken it to a whole new level. He’s taken recruiting to a whole new level and Kentucky to even greater heights.”

Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

As previously stated, Smith’s retirement is not foreseeable, but when he does hang up his coaching hat, his wants to leave a legacy of being a good man who did things the right way. That is important to him. “I want to be remembered as a coach who helped these young men be better people, fathers, husbands, and sons to their mothers and fathers. That is the legacy I want to leave. That is how I want to be remembered.”

Latest bracket predictions place the Red Raiders firmly in the field of sixty-eight for this year’s NCAA Tournament. It is worth stating again that he will be only the second coach to ever lead five programs to that level of post season play. Although Smith only desires to be remembered as a coach who did things the right way, its highly likely he will also be known as a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee.




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