As one of three Black coaches to win an NCAA national basketball championship, the University of Minnesota’s Tubby Smith is certainly high-profile. He’s already a legend. The exuberant Smith is just the fifth coach in NCAA history to pull off the rare feat of leading four teams (Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota) to the NCAA Tournament.
Everyone remembers 1998 when Smith won the national title with a Kentucky team that did not have an All-American or future NBA lottery pick on the roster. Entering his 20th season, Smith ranks among the college game’s elites with 467 wins (20th among active coaches), which translates to a scintillating .702 winning percentage.
Since his arrival in Minneapolis five years ago, the Minnesota Gophers have won their share of games. But they haven’t won the Big Ten Conference or advanced to the NCAA Final Four.
If the first half of last season is any indication, good things could be in store.
Minnesota won 16 of its first 20 games and was ranked as high as 15th in the national polls. But then, mounting injuries and the loss of a key player who transferred caused Tubby’s team to implode. The Gophers nosedived and lost 10 of their last 11 games. They did finish above the breakeven point at 17-14, but it wasn’t enough to earn a post-season bid.
For the first time in 17 years, Tubby Smith coached a team that failed to win at least 20 games.
Smith, however, had other concerns besides wins and losses. A few months ago, he announced that he had a cancerous tumor removed from his prostate in the spring. The venerable coach is cancer-free and eager to make amends for last season’s dismal finish.
Smith took a break from his early season schedule to talk to Diverse.
DI: Most folks think of Kentucky whenever they hear your name. They seem to forget that you had a life before and after UK. What’s your take on that?
TS: When people start out talking about Kentucky, I like to go back and digress. That’s because it’s difficult to understand the present if you don’t know anything about the past. People like John Thompson (Georgetown), John Chaney (Temple) and Nolan Richardson (Tulsa and Arkansas) paved the way for me and other minorities to get positions in Division I programs. The success that Nolan had (at Tulsa) was good for me.
DI: Has the experience of you having to deal with personal medical issues changed your outlook any?
TS: The experience has invigorated me, and my energy level has been great. I’m fully recovered from it. One thing it did was make me appreciate life a lot more.
DI: What are your thoughts about getting another opportunity to coach?
TS: I’m very fortunate, and I want to do more—to share the knowledge, the victories and the good times. I feel the need to be more alive, more fun-loving and more carefree with the players. That’s what I’m focused on.
DI: Before the start of Midnight Madness, you did a pretty decent impersonation of Rocky Balboa. The video has gotten a few thousand hits on YouTube. What was that all about?
TS: They (sports promotions) told me about the [boxing] theme they came up with. I’ve always enjoyed the sport and have followed all the boxing greats down through the years. As the idea evolved, I was asked how this could be applied to the team. That caused me to think about what I went through last year with the team not reaching its goals. So, I wondered how can I send a message to the team, to the fans, to Golden Gopher nation and the world, to say, “Hey, I’m still here, I’m still fighting.” Doing that impersonation was good for me, and it was pretty catchy. I didn’t think it would be that big a deal, but I guess it was.
Subconsciously, people may have asked themselves what was the message I was trying to send. My message: I’m a fighter, and my team is never going to give up. We’re contenders, not pretenders.
DI: Every spring, your name always comes up whenever there’s a coaching vacancy. Does that ever get old?
TS: It comes with the territory. It’s not me seeking opportunities. I see it as a compliment to our program that someone would be interested. I’ve never commented about any openings, any jobs, and I never will. And I’m not looking for another job.
DI: Not every college athlete makes it to the pros. There are still too many instances where athletes leave school without a degree. What can schools do to help improve graduation rates for athletes?
TS: When athletes don’t graduate, you can’t put it all on the coaches alone. We don’t set the entrance requirements; the NCAA does. More needs to be done on the front end. Before, it was always that kids could come back and get some type of benefits or stipend where they can finish up their college degree. But, sometimes, that’s too late.
Now we’re allowed to bring a kid in prior to his freshman year of matriculation. We bring in all of our freshmen (at Minnesota) in June because we can afford it. That’s why our kids are graduating at a very high rate because we do it on the front end. They pick up six hours then, so they’re ahead of the game. They can pick up 15 hours each semester, and six hours each summer. We’ve had two or three of our kids do that, and they were able to finish in December.
DI: Are there other areas that should be looked at in terms of improving graduation rates?
TS: More emphasis should be placed on the diagnostic testing that freshmen get when they come in during the summer. That’s when you can discover what their reading and math levels are. Once you do that, you can better prepare for their tutoring and mentoring. All of this is (already) in place before they start matriculating (in the fall).
DI: You’ve made it known that Minnesota is your last stop. When do you see Tubby Smith leaving the game for good?
TS: You always prepare for that, because you know you can’t do it forever. But you want to do it forever, especially if you’re having success and you’re having fun. I don’t want to stay too long. I think I still have a lot to offer this community, this university, and sports in general, not just basketball. What I’m talking about is the broad spectrum of what Tubby Smith is about and the legacy I want to leave.
DI: What is that legacy?
TS: No. 1, that I was a winner who did things the right way. I’d like to be remembered as a humanitarian who was willing to do and help and give back. That’s what I hope people who have come across my path will say about Tubby Smith, because that’s what I’m about.
DI: You are one of 17 children, and you give a lot of credit to your parents for their role in your upbringing. What lessons did you learn as a member of such a large family?
TS: I had a mom and dad (Parthenia and Guffrie Smith) who taught me about sharing, caring and hard work. The virtues you have to have, not only to be successful, but to just be able to make it. We try to equip our players with those characteristics. My parents are my heroes.