Tubby Smith won’t find the same pressure in Lubbock that he absorbed by walking the sidelines of Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., where the jet-engine noise of a die-hard, blue-blood fan base poured down on him nightly.
He won’t even feel the same strain of expectations he did at Minnesota, where three NCAA Tournament appearances in six seasons weren’t enough to keep his job.
But make no mistake, while no one here will be demanding Final Four trips any time soon, Texas Tech’s new head coach — a one-time national champion who will be 62 when he coaches his next game — is about to embark on his biggest challenge to date.
Smith, who was officially introduced as Tech’s new coach Tuesday, inherits a team that is a mere 4-32 in Big 12 Conference play the last two seasons. You don’t need any more numbers than those to tell you just how bleak things have been for the Red Raiders.
The sour recent history extends further, of course. Tech has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2007, the longest drought of any team in the Big 12 besides TCU. In fact, save for the Red Raiders and Horned Frogs, no team in the league has currently gone more than one season without a tournament berth.
If no defections take place on the roster — which is far from a certainty any time a coaching change takes place — Tech would return all but one player (Ty Nurse) from a roster that went 3-15 in the league this season.
There is some talent there, including point guard Josh Gray — there is speculation he could transfer — and senior leader Jaye Crockett, but not enough at this point to be consistently competitive in the Big 12.
Smith said he would encourage players to stay by using his own experience as a player at High Point (N.C.) College, where he played for three different coaches in four seasons but stayed at the school and now has his name hanging in the rafters.
“Sometimes you just have to last,” he said. “Sometimes you have to stay the course. That takes a tough kid, a tough person to overcome all those obstacles, all the people you have to go through, three or four different coaches.”
Tech, despite three open scholarships, currently has no recruits who have committed or signed to play for the school next season. Tech’s chance of landing McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier out of Dallas Kimball, who had built a close relationship with interim coach Chris Walker, ended Tuesday when Frazier committed to SMU.
Smith believes there is still time to bring in reinforcements for the next season, even with national signing day now just two weeks away.
“There’s still some out there,” he said. “We’ve got to beat the bushes. I’ve got to get busy on the phone talking to folks. But I’ve had calls about people that want to help us. It’s about evaluating them now and seeing if it’s a fit.”
Either way, what Smith faces at Tech is a situation that warrants the title of the oft-overused term “rebuilding project.” There will certainly be no wave-of-the-wand fixes. No magic cures for an ailing program. More than ever, Smith’s work ethic developed as one of 17 children growing up on a small farm will be put to the test.
“We have been down in men’s basketball,” Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said. “There’s no other way to say it. We expect more than where we’ve been in the recent past. When you have a leader, a role model, an educator that can come in and stand for excellence in everything that he does, it was attractive to us.”
But what was attractive to Smith about a job that will require tireless effort just to get things off the ground?
For starters, he believes he still has plenty left to give, saying he was “bitten by the bug of excitement and energy” when considering the possibility of coaching at Tech.
“Coaching ... it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing,” Smith said. “The people that influenced me the most in my life, other than my parents, were my teachers and coaches. So it’s something that we cherish dearly.”
His love of the craft is about to be put the test.