Tubby Smith has finally landed in a place that should be his last job. It’s in Lubbock at Texas Tech, and it may not have been how he envisioned his career when he coached Kentucky to a national title. But, as is often the case, life often gets in the way of the grand plan.
He’s not complaining. The biggest winner in this scenario is Texas Tech, which, after fumbling and bumbling through a collection of coaches since Bob Knight, has a man who should both win and retire here.
Unlike Knight I, Knight II or Billy Gillispie, Tech got this one right. Both parties need each other. Tech needs a winner, and Smith needs a place that will appreciate his work.
Since Bob Knight quit midseason in 2008, forcing Tech to give the job to his son, Pat, the Red Raiders have had two winning seasons, the last coming in 2009-10.
“This is probably going to be the toughest job in having to turn things around. Because there have been so many changes,” Smith, 62, said in a recent phone interview. “Four coaches in four years. Just that alone, just to mention the struggles you have at any place. It’s going to take a couple of years to get this on track in terms of the school, and recruiting. It’s a good fit for me.”
With so many changes for so many years, recruiting at Tech has suffered. Tech has not had an all-conference player since Martin Zeno made second team in 2008.
At a minimum, Smith should bring some stability and talent. Then he should win. Tech has already signed a pair of Rivals three-star prospects: 6-foot-5 guard Justin Gray from Tampa, Fla., and 6-7 forward Zach Smith from Plano East.
Tech does not seem like a natural fit for a guy who was born near Washington, D.C. He looks more like a city guy.
“I actually love to fish and the outdoors,” he said.
Tech is the ideal fit for Smith because it will appreciate him and not take him for granted when he wins 20 games.
In 22 years, he has never had a losing record. He has had 19 20-win seasons. If he does that in Lubbock, he’s a basketball hero.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I have been expected to stay forever,” Smith said. “When it was Tulsa [1991-95], it was a great job, maybe it was the best because it was my first. They loved basketball.”
He left Tulsa for Georgia and was there two years before going to Kentucky, where he won the national championship in his first of 10 seasons.
“That’s the one I should have stayed,” he said. “We had things going on; it was like we had to leave. There was talk [about him being fired]. We had just lost. It was a matter of going through the lulls, and I think we were on our way back.”
If Tubby Smith should not have been forced out at Kentucky in ’07, he never should have had to leave Minnesota in ’13. He signed a three-year extension at Minnesota in July 2012, and by March of the following year — after reaching the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament — he was out. A new administration hired 31-year-old Richard Pitino, son of Rick.
“For the first time in 22 years, you get fired for winning an NCAA tourney game — that’s fine,” Smith said. “They wanted a younger guy. That’s what it was. I mean, they couldn’t say that — it would have been a lawsuit waiting to happen. But it’s fine.”
And at the same time Tubby was leaving Minnesota, Tech was ready for another new coach. Unlike the hiring of Knight I, Knight II and Gillispie, this hire actually feels like it will work this time.
Tech wants a guy who will stick, and Smith wants a place that will appreciate competitive basketball and a 20-win season. Tech has not won 20 games in a season since 2006-07, and an NCAA Tournament game since 2005. If Tubby Smith somehow manages to win with this roster this season, build the man a statue. The Red Raiders are 10-10 and 2-5 in the competitive Big 12.
It may not be how he envisioned his life and career when he won a title at Kentucky in 1998, but this is the way it’s worked out. He’s at his last job.
Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog at www.star-telegram.com/sports.