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Smith welcomes challenge to make Gophers a winner

MINNEAPOLIS -- As Tubby Smith walked to the podium at
Williams Arena, hundreds of Golden Gopher fans showered him with
chants of "Tubby! Tubby!"

He looked at the adoring faithful of his new school and beamed.

"This is what it's all about," Smith said Friday after being
introduced as the new coach at Minnesota. "I feel the love
already."

It was quite a change for Smith, dogged by criticism from
Kentucky's notoriously demanding "Big Blue Nation." Wildcat fans
dubbed him "10-loss Tubby" and clogged Internet chat rooms and
talk radio shows with complaints about a coach who won a national
championship, five SEC titles, five SEC tournament titles and 76
percent of his games at Kentucky.

From the moment he stepped on stage decked out in a gray
pinstripe suit and Gopher tie, it was clear just how different
things will be in Minnesota.

"No matter how much he won at Kentucky, he's never going to
catch Adolph Rupp," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said.
"He can actually build a program here and develop a legacy here
that I don't think he could do at any of his other spots."

Smith came to Kentucky from Georgia in 1997 to replace a legend.
Rick Pitino had guided the Wildcats to two straight appearances in
the championship game before leaving to coach the Boston Celtics.
Despite one title and three appearances in the regional finals,
Wildcat fans were growing restless even before Kentucky lost in the
second round of the NCAA Tournament to Kansas last weekend.

There is no such pressure at Minnesota.

Smith inherits a team that went 9-22 last season and 3-13 in the
Big Ten. The Gophers were overmatched nearly every time they took
the floor, driving their once vocal fan base away in droves.

So Maturi set out to find a big-name coach who would sell season
tickets and energize lethargic fans. He shelled out $1.75 million a
year for seven years to lure Smith away from Kentucky, and Smith
acknowledged Friday he was ready for a change of scenery after 10
years in Lexington.

"I think the people closest to him were more upset with the
criticism than Tubby was," Maturi said. "That's not going to
happen here in Minnesota. We're going to be ecstatic when we go to
the tournament again.

"I think today you saw a smile on Tubby's face that you
probably haven't seen in awhile."

Smith downplayed those vocal Wildcat fans' role in his
departure, saying that was "blown out of proportion," and spoke
glowingly about his time in Kentucky, even thanking athletic
director Mitch Barnhart in his opening statement.

"I didn't spend a lot of time listening to [the criticism],"
Smith said. "I was too busy trying to win games. We're not running
from anything. We're running to a great program."

The crowd erupted again after that statement, and it's clear
Maturi's quest to find a galvanizing force to lead this woebegone
program is off to a smashing start. Less than two hours after
Thursday's announcement, more than 250 season ticket orders were
filled.

Center Spencer Tollackson marveled at the amount of fans and
student supporters in the stands at Williams Arena for the press
conference.

"We were driving here from class, and people were walking down
University Avenue in Gopher basketball shirts," Tollackson said.
"That's just not normal around here right now. We walked in here,
and this place was going crazy. We're just really excited. We can't
wait to get going with Coach Smith."

Smith has plenty of work to do. His predecessor, Dan Monson,
struggled mightily in recruiting and never was able to lift the
program out of a hole dug by a massive academic fraud scandal under
Clem Haskins.

"We're going to develop a championship program here," Smith
said. "It's not going to be easy."

The 55-year-old farmer's son, who grew up with 16 siblings,
knows plenty about hard work. He rebuilt Tulsa and Georgia. And
he's won more NCAA Tournament games and made more appearances in
the round of 16 and the final eight than the Gophers have in their
111-year history.

"We needed a jumpstart," Maturi said. "Let's be honest here.
There's no gamble with Tubby Smith. If we don't win with Tubby
Smith, then we have to look internally at our program and what
we're doing or not doing. If we don't win, it's not because of the
coach."

In the end, Smith said, he didn't leave Kentucky because of the
high expectations or the vocal critics. It turns out that he needed
a jumpstart, too.

"Leaving Kentucky for here, for me, is just a new challenge,"
Smith said. "It brings some renewed energy and life. I need it. I
know Minnesota needs it. So we're going to feed off each other."