Cautiously Optimistic About Tubby Smith

USA Today sportswriter and former Commercial Appeal Tiger beat writer Dan Wolken broke the news today that the University of Memphis is zeroing in on Tubby Smith to replace Josh Pastner as the head men’s basketball coach. The deal could be done as soon as today:

Initial Reaction.

First off, let’s not breeze past the fact that Tubby Smith is likely going to be in the Naismith Hall of Fame at some point. After replacing Rick Pitino, Smith coached Kentucky to a National Title, and then 3 more Elite 8 appearances.

His Kentucky legacy is obviously overshadowed by Rick Pitino and John Calipari, but he had a solid run there. Even after he ran out of Pitino’s players, he guided the 2002-2003 Wildcat squad to 32 wins and an Elite 8 following an undefeated SEC regular season. 2 years before he left for Minnesota, Smith finished with 28 wins and guided the Cats to another Elite 8 performance.

Tubby Smith may not have been up to Kentucky standards, but he wasn’t Billy Gillespie either.

He also went to the NCAA Tournament as Georgia’s coach, as Tulsa’s coach, as Minnesota’s coach and as Texas Tech’s coach.

That’s a big deal.

Those are all pretty much coaching graveyards, and Tubby won at all of them. He took each of them to the NCAA tournament.

So what should we expect at Memphis?

Given that history, it should be expected that Tubby Smith will win at Memphis. He’ll go to the NCAA tournament. He’ll presumably have well coached teams (though I can’t honestly say I know much about his style of play).

He’ll run a clean program, not that Memphis fans really care about that.

Memphis in the AAC is not relative exactly to Kentucky in the SEC, but it’s closer to the best job in its league than the other spots Smith has coached. Way closer.

I expect that Smith, if he can find a way to get talent to Memphis, will restore excitement and optimism at Memphis.

Does that mean Sweet 16’s? Elite 8’s? Final Fours?

My best answer to that is it depends on what kind of talent he can accumulate.

Recruiting, Recruiting, Recruiting.

So ultimately, this will come down to whether or not Smith can recruit well. A source close to one of Smith’s former program’s told me that he is a “very lazy recruiter.” I’ve seen others say that while that’s true, he’s a good closer.

This necessitates a sound plan to support Smith with some player-getters. Perhaps a coach in waiting (Smith will be 65 this year) like Penny Hardaway? Perhaps someone like Tony Madlock on staff?

Obviously the news that Dedric Lawson is coming back will help. Perhaps Keelon Lawson will stick around to deliver the youngest Lawson.

I don’t care what the plan is, but there better be a plan. I assume there is.

Something Different.

Memphis hasn’t hired a coach like Tubby Smith in my lifetime. John Calipari was just as accomplished, but he had baggage. Josh Pastner was unproven. Both were upwardly mobile – and at first you feared they’d be moving along to the next stop. At the end, Memphis fans were praying Pastner would move along to the next stop.

Tubby Smith, if hired, is an elder statesman of the game. A Hall of Fame candidate, widely respected throughout the industry. A solid pro who will surely be coming to his final stop.

Memphis is a place where maybe Smith can put the capstone on a wonderful career by achieving the same levels of success he saw over a decade ago in Lexington. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it’s kind of exciting.

It’s a far cry from where we were a week ago.

Race and Gravitas Matter.

And let’s not ignore the racial reality of this hire.

There was no imperative to hire an African American coach. Memphis fans of all races prioritize winning over anything else. Memphis basketball has always done more to unite races in the city than to divide them (though the Larry Finch saga was certainly a strain).

That being said, Memphis needs to hire a coach that can inspire local talent to stay at home and thrive at home. Josh Pastner failed in that regard.

I think Tubby Smith could succeed in that area, and not just because he happens to be African American.

Smith was one of 17 children born to sharecroppers.  He gradually worked his way up the coaching ladder and has now had a 25 year basketball coaching career with great success. I can imagine him inspiring and motivating young, talented Memphis basketball players to play with passion in a way that Josh Pastner never did.

For that reason especially, I’m optimistic.