With no name attached to it, picture a head coaching resume that includes as many national championships as Lute Olson, Jerry Tarkanian, Tom Izzo and Bill Self; more career wins than Nolan Richardson, Lou Carnesecca and Gene Keady; and on the verge of sending a record fifth team to the NCAA Tournament.
Pretty impressive, right? So why isn’t Tubby Smith more regularly championed for his illustrious career?
Given his credentials, Smith’s deserving of praise in line with the profession’s greats. He’s one of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball.
For all the milestones Smith’s reached in his 25-year career, the 2015-’16 season stands out for a number of reasons, though.
An 80-71 win Saturday over Kansas State sealed a 19-11 regular-season and .500 Big 12 Conference finish for Smith’s Texas Tech Red Raiders. In a conference with Top 10 heavyweights and Final Four favorites like Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Baylor and Iowa State, 9-9 in league play isn’t so bad. It’s also probably going to be enough to send Tech to its first NCAA Tournament since 2007, and Smith to his 18th overall.
Sure beats that 10th-place finish projected in the Big 12 preseason poll.
Photo: Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire
Should the Red Raiders get the call on Selection Sunday, Smith (Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas Tech) joins Big 12 counterpart Lon Kruger (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma) as the only coaches in NCAA history to lead five teams to the Big Dance.
Since emerging on the national radar with two Sweet 16 appearances at Tulsa in the mid-1990s, Smith’s career has followed a fascinating trajectory that captures the profession’s highs and lows.
He had the proverbial jetpack strapped to his back, going from the success at Tulsa to two NCAA Tournament appearances at Georgia, before getting the call from one of college basketball’s blue bloods: Kentucky.
Kentucky will forever be the program most linked to Smith. He won his national championship there in year one. He spent more time in Lexington that any other stop on his career. Links to Kentucky have also followed him in his life since.
Smith replaced Rick Pitino at Kentucky in 1997; Pitino’s son replaced Smith at Minnesota in 2013, following an unceremonious, if not surprising firing.
The Golden Gophers appeared in three NCAA Tournaments under Smith and won 20-plus games four times in his tenure. His stint was as admirable a clean-up of the crippling mess left in the late 1990s when the Clem Haskins-led program was involved in a widespread academic scandal. Though Smith’s arrival was eight years later, Minnesota basketball hardly had a pulse before 2007-’08.
It hasn’t had much since. On the same day Tech took an important step to solidifying its at-large chances, 8-22 Minnesota lost to 7-24 Rutgers by 23 points, and trailed by as many as 31.
Twice programs have fired Smith. Twice, they immediately suffered.
Kentucky cut ties with the coach after the 2007 campaign, hiring away the red-hot Billy Gillispie from Texas A&M. Gillispie’s two seasons in Lexington were what qualify as disastrous for those in Big Blue Nation, producing a first-round NCAA Tournament and NIT appearance.
Neither happened under Smith.
Coincidentally, Smith followed the dumpster fire Gillispie left burning in Lubbock. Texas Tech’s problems may not have been as large in scale as those Haskins left Minnesota, but Smith came on the scene in much closer proximity to a predecessor’s failings.
Tech’s return has been remarkably fast, and arguably best underscores Smith’s worthiness to be mentioned in league with college basketball’s all-time legends.
What makes Smith’s history so unique compared to other noteworthy names is those two firings. Administrators and boosters are notoriously quick to let go of football coaches, thus plenty of standouts have some kind of blemish on their records. But consider some of those aforementioned names: Olson parlayed a Final Four run into his long and illustrious tenure at Arizona. Izzo’s entrenched at Michigan State. Self’s success at Illinois paved the way for his run at Kansas.
Few coaching greats have had to make the moves Smith has, and certainly not in their mid-60s. At 64 years old, Tubby Smith’s 18th NCAA Tournament may very well be his most impressive.
The meat of Texas Tech’s resume was built in mid-February, when the Red Raiders won three straight games over nationally ranked opponents Iowa State, Baylor and, as fate would have it, Kruger’s Oklahoma Sooners.
After that win, Smith offered a basic summary of how the 2015-’16 Red Raiders went from a last-place finish and projection to repeat, to now playing for the NCAA Tournament.
“When you believe it, sometimes things happen for you,” he said, via TexasTech.com.
Oh, the things that have happened in Smith’s career. He’s arguably the most unappreciated coach of an era.
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