New coach hopes to bring tradition back to Barn

Smith will try to bring his winning ways to Minnesota.

Zach Eisendrath

It took athletic director Joel Maturi 114 days to find a new coach for the Minnesota men’s basketball team. But from all indications, the lengthy search was well worthwhile.

Former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who signed a seven-year deal Thursday worth $1.8 million per year, was introduced to Minnesota faithful at an open news conference Friday afternoon at Williams Arena.

Saying Smith was well received by Gophers’ fans would be an understatement.

After a “Tubby” chant echoed throughout “the Barn,” Smith, wearing his brand-new maroon and gold tie, made his first public comments at the helm of the Gophers.

“This is what it’s all about,” he said. “Certainly it’s an honor and a privilege to be joining the Minnesota Gopher family, and I look forward to spending a lot of time with many of you. I feel the love already.

“In your lives you’re going to have moments that there is a gift and certainly for me to be here today is truly a gift. It’s a blessing,” Smith said. “We’re ready to get going, we’re going to hit the road running.”

Maturi said he found out in December that Smith might have interest in leaving Kentucky at the season’s end but didn’t start discussions with him until the Wildcats lost their second-round NCAA tournament game to Kansas on March 18.

From there, Maturi said the process went quickly, as it was imperative to lock down a deal since many other high-profile schools had job openings to fill.

“For the basketball position, we needed somebody who was proven, successful and is a high-profile coach,” Maturi said. “There are few coaches in America who are more proven, more successful and more high-profile than Tubby Smith.”

Maturi admitted to wanting someone who could sell tickets and rejuvenate Williams Arena, which, at times, was lifeless last season.

In Smith, Maturi said he believes he has found the right man to re-energize the program. In his 15 years as a Division I head coach, the 55-year-old Smith has won more tournament games than the Gophers have in their history. He also has won 20 or more games in his last 14 seasons.

Most impressive, however, might be the fact that Smith has never had a losing season.

That résumé has garnered plenty of respect from Smith’s new players – many of whom found out about the hire by watching ESPNEWS.

Junior center Spencer Tollackson said he received a text message from a friend about the hire but didn’t believe him at first.

Just hours before Smith’s name circulated, much of the team thought Xavier coach Sean Miller was the front-runner for the job.

Only when players found out Maturi was flying to Kentucky to bring Smith to the Twin Cities late Thursday afternoon did the Gophers realize they would be playing for one of the winningest active coaches in college basketball.

As expected, players on hand for the press conference were thrilled with the hire.

“I didn’t even know he was a candidate for it. I don’t think a lot of people did,” Tollackson said.

“But, we are so excited to have him here. I don’t think they could have hired anybody better than coach Smith.”

Redshirt sophomore guard Ryan Saunders, whose father Flip Saunders was speculated for months to perhaps become the Gophers new next head coach, said the team can’t wait to get back on the floor with Smith.

“It just gets you excited,” Saunders said of hearing Smith at the news conference. “We were just sitting on that bench talking, and we were just excited listening to him, seeing him up there.”

After taking over a program that had numerous NCAA violations against it during the Clem Haskins era, Smith assured Minnesota faithful that he will do things the right way.

“We’re going to earn your respect,” Smith said. “Our teams will play a style of basketball that will be fun, exciting and winning. It doesn’t do any good if you don’t win, I can tell you that right now.

“We’re going to develop a championship program here. It’s not going to be easy. I know all the coaches in the Big Ten and we’re friends and we’re always going to be friends, but when it comes between these lines it’s going to be very competitive and expectations are going to be high.”