- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi found out six weeks ago that Tubby Smith was willing to leave Kentucky and come to Minnesota, Maturi told ESPN.com late Thursday night, the eve of the Golden Gophers' news conference to introduce their new men's basketball coach.
Maturi said Smith agreed to a seven-year deal worth $1.8 million annually, and the coach met with Gophers players Thursday night as well as academic counselors. Maturi said Smith wanted to know about the team's GPA, graduation rate and standing in the Academic Performance Report, and the new coach stressed to the players how seriously they must take their academics at Minnesota.
Maturi's coup of landing a national championship coach started when he sought out Smith's agent and friend Ricky Lefft. The two had conversations over the past six weeks about Smith's potential interest in the position. Maturi didn't speak with Smith until Wednesday. He had no idea he was going to fly to Lexington, Ky., to pick up Smith until 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
Maturi said he was respectful of his profession and didn't want to contact Smith directly while he was coaching. He said Smith was part of his "Plan A," including a few other high-profile coaches he refused to name. He said he had a "Plan B" list if that didn't work out. He worked with a search firm out of Atlanta led by Dan Parker. Once Parker found out there was interest in the Smith camp, Maturi and Lefft got together.
"In all honesty, I didn't think this would be the case, but then once I did my homework I realized that, 'My goodness, he's in a pressure cooker where if you don't get to the Final Four he's not having a great year.' We'd be happy with 14 straight 20-win seasons."
Maturi, who forced out Dan Monson as coach in November, said he had three months to survey the landscape. He said the upper administration at Minnesota signed off Maturi going after a high-profile candidate and offering more money than they had ever paid a football or basketball coach.
But for the deal to get done, Maturi had to start the process earlier than Kentucky's final game last Sunday in Chicago against Kansas.
"I met with the agent prior, but there's no way I thought it was a done deal," Maturi said. "I felt a connection with Ricky. We had similar values and we cared about Coach Smith and saw how much of a gem Minnesota is and how we have a great venue to play in [Williams Arena] with a town thirsting to fill the barn. We've got a great metropolitan area and a welcoming city."
Maturi said once Kentucky lost Sunday, conversations became more intense between Maturi and Lefft.
Maturi said he didn't ask Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart for permission to speak with Smith until Thursday morning.
"I never thought it would happen this quickly, but [Smith] made the decision that if he was going to get on the plane then there was no turning back," Maturi said. Maturi did say he spoke with Smith briefly Wednesday.
"I was talking to the agent [Lefft] as late as 2:30 [Thursday morning], and I didn't know we were going to go down there," Maturi said. "I called for a private plane and didn't know we could get one when I called at 8 [a.m. Thursday]. When I got home [Wednesday night] I didn't know I was going to be on an airplane [Thursday]."
Maturi said as soon as Barnhart gave him permission Thursday, he called Smith immediately.
"I honestly thought we wouldn't have a press conference until Monday, not Friday," Maturi said.
Maturi said Smith told him the same thing he told his Wildcats players: that he had had a great 10 years but that sometimes change is necessary, and he felt that this would be a good and healthy thing in his career. Smith said he was thankful for the opportunity at Kentucky and proud of the accomplishments. Maturi said Smith didn't say if he would bring anyone on his Kentucky staff to Minnesota, but that the decision is up to the coach. But Maturi said Smith would need someone with strong Midwest connections, especially in the state of Minnesota.
"He was looking forward to a new stage, a final stage I hope here," Maturi said. "We talked about a lot of things, but mostly it was about academic rates, graduation rates and that was one of the many things that endeared me to him. We didn't talk much about salary, but what he could do for young men. I know all coaches talk like that, but he lives it. That's who he is. That's why he is so revered."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.