Tubby Smith had no vision of stepping away from coaching following his dismissal from Minnesota last week.
He also didn’t expect to be boarding a plane to West Texas just a few days after he landed on the unemployment line.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Smith said Tuesday, April 2, while being introduced as Texas Tech’s 16th basketball coach. “(Tech officials) flew down to North Carolina and we met. In fact, we were just going to talk, and they indicated, ‘Well, we have two empty seats on the plane.’ ”
Smith, 61, and his wife, Donna, occupied those seats Thursday, March 28, and arrived in Lubbock to further discuss the position and tour facilities. A few days later he was signing a six-year contract that will pay him an average of $1.85 million per season.
“We were really sold right away,” said Smith, who had previously been the head coach at four other programs — Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota — over the course of 22 seasons.
In that span, his teams have made the NCAA Tournament 17 times.
That kind of track record was hard for Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt to ignore.
“Tubby Smith is one of the most respected men, not only in college basketball,” Hocutt said. “Tubby Smith is one of the most respected men in all of intercollegiate athletics, and Tubby Smith has experienced success everywhere’s that he’s been.”
Smith, who led Kentucky to a national championship in 1998, is in for a major challenge, taking over a team that has gone just 13-55 in Big 12 play since 2010 and is still reeling from the messy departure of Billy Gillispie in September.
But the veteran coach believes building the Red Raiders into a winner is possible, referencing the four NCAA Tournaments Bob Knight reached in his six full seasons at the school.
“We expect to do that, as well” Smith said. “It’s my goal to build this program into one of the top programs, not just in the Big 12, but in the country.”
“That’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard work, and we know the process of rebuilding a program is not easy. We’ve done it a few places, and I think that the identity and the talent that we have here, we have a good start.”
Tech’s hiring of Smith ended a 19-day search, that began when the Red Raiders lost to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals March 14. A handful of candidates were interviewed for the position, including interim coach Chris Walker, whom Hocutt thanked before introducing Smith.
“Chris did a tremendous job in serving as our interim coach,” Hocutt said. “His leadership and his positive attitude were contagious, and it was very tremendous, and I sincerely appreciate the good work that coach Walker did this year.”
Hocutt repeatedly referenced Smith’s experience — namely winning experience — as a major factor in the school’s decision.
Smith, one of 17 children who grew up on a farm in Maryland, has won 20 or more games in 19 of his 22 seasons. Tech last reached that plateau during the 2006-07 season (21-13).
Though he this season led Minnesota to its first NCAA Tournament win since 1997, Norwood Teague, the school’s athletic director, dismissed Smith one day after a third-round loss to Florida, in part because the Gophers were unable to finish better than sixth in the Big Ten Conference during his tenure.
Smith insisted despite the way things ended at Minnesota, he has plenty left to give at this stage in his career.
“One of the things my dad taught me growing up on that farm was to do the best job you can and leave that place in better shape than you found it,” Smith said, “and we’ve done that everywhere we’ve been.”
Tech players did not meet with Smith for an extended period of time before Tuesday’s news conference, but most of them were in attendance, standing to one side of a conference room inside United Spirit Arena.
“I’m just ready to get it started,” said senior forward Jaye Crockett, who will play for his fourth coach in as many seasons. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about him, so hopefully he can turn it around real quick.”
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