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Mr. Smith went to Minnesota, reversed its fortunes and proved he's still a top-notch coach
ORLANDO (TUBBY) SMITH, in his latest gig as the coach at Minnesota, is not so much a man reborn as a man remade. Before he abruptly resigned as Kentucky's coach in March 2007, he'd been driven nearly to distraction by the state's hoops-obsessed fans, who overlooked his achievements—five SEC championships and 10 NCAA tournament appearances in 10 seasons—to focus on his most glaring shortcoming: After winning the 1998 national title in his first season, he never got back to the Final Four. But at Minnesota, which hasn't won a Big Ten championship in 27 years, Smith has gone from beleaguered underachiever to program savior. Last season he took over a team that had finished 9--22 the year before and went 20--14, and at week's end his Golden Gophers were 15--1 (3--1 in the Big Ten) and ranked No. 18. (Before this season they had not been in the Top 25 in six years.)
The move from Lexington may have cost Smith more than a quarter of a million dollars in guaranteed salary, but it's turning out to have been worth every lost penny. Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who hired Smith as a Wildcats assistant in 1989, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in December that while the atmosphere at Kentucky was "extremely stressful ... Tubby handled it well. But I think he enjoys coaching a lot more now."
Smith is still a talented coach, and he's proving it with a young lineup that features two freshmen and two sophomores among its top six scorers. In the Gophers' 68--59 win over then No. 23 Ohio State in Minneapolis on Jan. 3, the 57-year-old Smith showed his usual cool hand. Trailing 22--15 midway through the first half, he calmed his jittery team, which was coming off its only loss of the season, a 70--58 drubbing by 10th-ranked Michigan State in the conference opener, and he switched from man-to-man defense to a 2--3 zone. That slowed the Buckeyes' transition offense, and they scored just two more points in the final seven minutes of the half. "We lost our composure at both ends of the floor after that," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta, whose team shot just 34.6% from the field for the game. "They've got a lot of different ways they can hurt you."
Most of those ways begin with guard Al Nolen, a 6'1" sophomore out of Minneapolis's Henry High. In his first full season as a starter he has established himself as one of the best floor leaders in the Big Ten, ranking second in the league in assists (5.81 per game) and in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.04), and third in steals (2.06). He has become a favorite of Smith's because of both his defensive intensity and his ability to involve his teammates in the offense. "He's always comparing me to [former Kentucky point guard] Rajon Rondo," says Nolan. "I'm a pass-first kind of guy."
Smith went outside the state to find a pair of highly regarded freshman big men, whom the local press has dubbed Tubby's Towers. Centers Colton Iverson, who's 6'10", and Ralph Sampson III, the 6'11" son of former Virginia All-America Ralph Sampson II, hail from Yankton, S.D., and Duluth, Ga., respectively. "I told Tubby that he could recruit on a national scale at Minnesota," says former Gophers coach Clem Haskins, who left the program in a shambles of academic scandal in 1999 but advised his longtime friend to take the job. "I also told him that the people would embrace him."
They have indeed. On a weekend when thousands of Minnesota Vikings playoff tickets remained unsold the day before their wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Gophers' ancient Williams Arena, a 14,625-seat, 81-year-old field house affectionately known as the Barn, was filled to capacity for the Ohio State game. The victory was the second this season for Minnesota over a ranked opponent (the Gophers beat then No. 9 Louisville in Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 20) and provided a needed boost on the heels of the loss to the Spartans. "That was a rude awakening," says Smith. "Our guys got a lesson that night on how hard they have to play."
In a tougher-than-expected Big Ten this season, their coach isn't likely to let them forget. He may not be as tightly wound these days, but he still knows how to pull the right strings.