Smith wants Gophers to be up-tempo team

After 10 seasons at Kentucky, the men’s basketball coach takes on a new and tougher task.

by Zach Eisendrath

Coach Tubby Smith of the Minnesota men’s basketball team is nearing his first season as head coach of the Gophers’ basketball program. The Minnesota Daily was granted an exclusive one-on-one interview with Smith last week. Gophers’ beat writer Zach Eisendrath sat down with Smith to get a better idea of his philosophies, outlook and plans to make the program a winning one once again.

You’ve been out of the media for awhile now, what have you been doing on a day-to-day basis from the spring into the summer? How has the transition been from leaving Kentucky?

I’ve been pretty busy. I was trying to put together a staff when I first got here in March. I feel very good about the people we have onboard. I’ve also been trying to get to know the team, the players and their families. Ö But for the most part, when you are making a transition after having been somewhere like Kentucky for 10 years, it’s not easy.

I’m doing my job, and that’s to run this basketball program the best way we can, to recruit the best players we can.

Can you talk about the coaching staff you assembled?

The first thing you look at is competence, and then you look at character; are they good people? Are they committed and loyal? And that’s something in Ron Jirsa, who was the head coach of Marshall the last four years, and who I worked together with at VCU, Tulsa and Georgia. He’s been in a couple locations where he has been successful. I know Ron has the expertise, he was one of the first I called, and he’s the associate head coach.

Then my son Saul, who was (an assistant coach) at Tennessee Tech. He’s well-rounded, has been on some great teams at Kentucky and played professionally some in the NBA DL (Developmental League). It was time for him to make a move after doing his apprenticeship at Tennessee Tech.

The next person was right in our backyard here, in (former Minnesota Timberwolves’s assistant coach) Vince Taylor. I was very surprised – I knew Vince, and he contacted me because he knew we had positions available. There were hundreds of applicants for assistant positions here, but he has had a great reputation in the business – having worked for Denny Crum and Rick Pitino – good friends of mine at Louisville.

He had been working with the Timberwolves here so he had a good idea of about what Minneapolis and the landscape and demographics of this region are, so he’s been a big help.

Joe Esposito, a young man from a great family, who’s been a head coach before is our director of basketball operations. He’s very well-rounded; he brings a wide array, he’s so versatile and just what we needed; he’s been excellent.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a thousand times, but for those who don’t know, where did you get the nickname Tubby?

I grew up in a large family and I had a fondness for the bathtub. Growing up in a household in a rural area on a farm in southern Maryland where we pretty much grew everything, you learn what nature is all about by working in the fields. Whether it’s cutting tobacco, picking tomatoes, feeding a hog, killing a chicken, driving a tractor – I think I’ve pretty much done it all.

Then on Saturday nights you use a tub for a lot of different things. Whether you use it for hauling water or washing clothes or bathing in. When I got in on Saturday nights, I didn’t want to get out, hence the name Tubby.

My mom said I was a little heavy too, but I don’t believe that. And there are no pictures of me putting on pounds (laughs).

And the name stuck even when you tried to get rid of it, right?

I had a teacher, Ms. Jane Mattingly, never forget it. I guess I was in the 10th grade then, she was asking everyone what they wanted to be called. She got to me and said Orlando Henry. Someone yelled “Tubby.” She goes “Orlando or Henry.” I didn’t hear her say that so I said “Tubby.” She said it’s either Orlando or Henry, so people gave me a lot of grief for that and the name became even more infamous because she didn’t give me a choice (to be called Tubby). (My classmates) really laughed it up and gave me a hard time for that.

What else should the public know about you that they wouldn’t otherwise know from just seeing you coach?

They know about my family, they know about who we are working with here. That my family has grown up in an environment of the spirit of giving and caring for people, those are the instincts that were characteristics given instinctively to a family of my size. I’ve been very blessed. I’m not any saint, but I try to do the right things.

Do you have a favorite location on campus yet?

Not yet, but I’m sure there are going to be some. Right now my favorite spot is Williams Arena. Obviously we are trying to get this team in shape so that we are ready to compete in the Big Ten.

It’s against NCAA regulations to comment on specific recruits, but talk about your general philosophy in terms of recruiting?

Just get the best players we can. I don’t know if there is a science to it, other than you want to find men of character, men of quality and that are capable of helping us win. We want the best student-athletes possible.

We are involved (in discussions) with some good players, talented players. I think my reputation across the country has been influential in generating interest from players across the country. We plan on building this into a top-20 program, and we should be able to do that because we have a lot to offer here – great institution, great location, great conference, which now includes the Big Ten Network, and we’ve put together an excellent (coaching) staff.

How has the Big Ten Network helped build your program?

To give you an idea, I was at a home of a player in Mississippi, and his mom was flipping through the channels the other day and caught the Gopher football game, all the way in Mississippi on the Big Ten Network. And it’s unique because no other conference in the country has their own TV network. The Big Ten wants to remain the top conference in the country and I think this is a great way to do it.

It’s going to help us sell the University, not just from an athletic standpoint, but in all areas.

Compare the style of play in the SEC to the Big Ten. Will the transition from conferences force you to change your coaching style?

I hope I don’t because it’s been pretty successful. I think the Big Ten has had the reputation of being a very physical conference and the SEC has been a conference people have considered more athletic.

But I’ve competed against the Big Ten schools and we’ve had our head handed to us at Kentucky and we’ve also won some games.

We need to do a great job at recruiting if we want to be able to compete with the likes of Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, and Bruce Weber – there are some great coaches in this league.

It’s a league that is pretty competitive. If anything, we better learn a lot quicker and learn what this league is all about. As a staff, we are trying to do our homework, watching film on the schools in the Big Ten to learn some things.

What type of style of play do you want your teams playing offensively and defensively? What type of identity?

We want to be an up-tempo team, always want to take the first open shot and want to force as many turnovers as we can.

We don’t really believe in exposing ourselves by extending our defense too much that we give up easy baskets, because I believe the good players and the good teams score. And we’ll be able to score.

We need to limit their opportunities and I think the way you do that is by having a good sound defensive philosophy – making (opponents) shoot from the outside and limiting teams to one shot.

We have three of our leading scorers back in (seniors) Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson, so they are going to be asked to carry a lot. But I think we have some other players that I think can step in and pick up some of the slack this year as well.

What areas need to be improved on a team that went 9-22 last season?

Ball handling. We need to cut back on turnovers.

I thought they were pretty sound defensively last year. Jim Molinari and Dan Monson have always been excellent Xs and Os coaches. Now we need to find a way for these guys to get confidence early on. Hopefully, I think, our schedule will allow us to do that. Ö We’ve got to learn how to win and finish some games. I think those are some areas that need to be worked on.

Is it too early to think about who your starting point guard might be?

It’s not like I don’t think about it, but I’m not ready to commit to anybody. I’m committed to all of them in being able to help us. It’s going to be my job to run the team. If it’s Al Nolen or Lawrence McKenzie or Lawrence Westbrook – those are three candidates, I think, but at this juncture I don’t have any particular one that has really jumped out and I can say “here’s the team and you run it.”

We are not going to be able to depend on one guy to run the team. We might have a two-guard front where equal distribution of ball handling might be the thing to do. I think we’ve improved our ball handling just by signing (point guard) Al Nolen and (shooting guard) Blake Hoffarber. They are both sound fundamentally and good passers – but they are freshmen. Kevin Payton also played some point last year.

Whether we go to a one guard front or a two guard front, it’s something we’re going to have to look at.

From the sound of things, it appears all spots are open on this years’ roster, regardless of who played last year and who didn’t?

Some of (the players) are making some head waves. Some of them are doing some great things. We are going to look at every aspect. Those that take care of business in the classroom, those that we can count on to do the right things, are the ones we are going to play.

There’s no real pressure on me to play somebody. The pressure is on them to prove they can play here and they can help this team win. They need to show me they are willing to do those things that are necessary to get the job done. That’s how I’m going to operate, and how I’ve always operated.

How anxious are you to coach your first game here?

I’m fired up. I’m anxious to get in the first practice because right now we are just doing individual workouts. If we can get each player to get better, the team will get better, so that’s been our focus.

The Gophers haven’t hosted midnight madness in four years, what should fans expect Oct. 12?

It will be a good time to introduce the team to the public and generate some excitement.

I guess you can’t really call it midnight madness anymore; I guess it can be called Golden Gopher Madness because it’s not going to be at midnight – the NCAA allows you to do it earlier in the day (9 p.m.).

The year following your national championship at Kentucky, you came out dressed as Don King and your players as professional wrestlers. Any surprises for this year?

We’re going to do some things. We can’t let it out; we can’t divulge it now (laughs).

Through the years there have been a lot of skits. Ö We don’t mind being a part of that because it’s a fun time, because it’s going to get pretty serious (after that). But we’re going to have a good time.

What are your expectations for Gopher fans?

Patience. But I think they are excited. From what I understand, they’ve had good support over the years even when there were tough times. As the saying goes, “tough times don’t last, tough people do.” We want our players as well as our fans to tough it out. And they’ve shown over the years that Gopher fans are that way. We know that we need to give a great effort and show improvement, and if so, we’ll have plenty of support.