- Jeff Shelman
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Two weeks before college basketball practice began, Tubby Smith stepped out of a golf cart at the private Windsong Farm Golf Club in suburban Minneapolis.
As Smith walked onto the tee on this blustery morning, it was impossible to miss the gigantic "M" that seemed to take up every possible inch of real estate on the front of his maroon pullover.
Even now, nearly eight months after he left Kentucky for the University of Minnesota, the sight of Smith in something other than blue and without the interlocking "UK" still doesn't look right.
That's because in many ways, Smith's arrival at Minnesota may be as unlikely as any of the 55 Division I coaching changes. After all, Smith isn't that hot coach moving up the hoops food chain for a more lucrative job in a higher-profile league. He isn't a fired power conference coach looking for a new start at a mid- or low-major. And, considering Smith has never lived in either a big city or a place where snow is a winter constant, it isn't as if Minneapolis was some natural draw.
But here was the 56-year-old Smith, playing golf with Minneapolis Urban League president Clarence Hightower, the brother of noted college hoops official Ed Hightower.
Smith laughed when he was asked whether he let Clarence win some holes in exchange for some calls when Minnesota's regular season begins. Thing is, Smith is going to need all the help he can get this season.
Smith's résumé as a college basketball coach is extremely strong. He has 14 consecutive seasons with at least 21 wins. Only four coaches have won more games in their first 16 seasons as a head coach. He has never had a losing season as a head coach. He has taken nine teams to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, four to the Elite Eight and led Kentucky to the 1998 national championship.
All of that makes his arrival such a surprise. Minnesota, after all, is pretty much everything Smith isn't.
The Gophers have finished ninth or 10th in the 11-team Big Ten three of the past four seasons. Last season, Dan Monson lasted only seven games before being fired, and the Gophers won their fewest games (nine) in 20 years and set a school record for losses (22). Amazingly, Minnesota didn't win a game in February or March and enters Saturday's season opener on a nine-game losing streak.
While Monson, who resurfaced at Long Beach State this past spring, certainly faced a difficult task when he was hired to clean up the mess from an academic fraud scandal under Clem Haskins, he was never really able to get anything going. Some of it was bad luck or a single play here or there, but his tenure was also filled with poor recruiting and even worse talent evaluation. Simply put, Monson signed too many players who weren't good enough to play in the Big Ten and it eventually caught up to him.
It's much of the reason why Minnesota has played in only one NCAA Tournament since 1999 and has gone 47-81 in Big Ten play since 2000. It's also why expectations for Smith's first Gophers team have to be tempered.
Smith's first Minnesota team has three adequate players in guard Lawrence McKenzie, forward Dan Coleman and center Spencer Tollackson, but all three players have limitations. After that, there are only questions. True freshman Al Nolen will see extended minutes at point guard. How this team will rebound and where it will find depth are both yet to be determined.
All Smith will promise entering Saturday's opener against Army is that the Gophers will play hard. Smith and his staff have put the Gophers players through morning practices that have been more grueling than anything they experienced in the past.
"We're going to play hard or they're not going to play," Smith said. "They're going to see a team that's going to give their all. That's the bottom line. You don't do that and there's nothing else to talk about. There's no reason to be out there. I like our attitude, I like our energy level.
"[Last season] they played pretty tough, but they didn't take care of the ball. That's something we still have to improve on, the rebounding, the ballhandling, the shot selection."
Smith's hope is that the Gophers will play tough defense and play faster than the opposition. Before those Kentucky fans out there laugh or throw up their arms after hearing Smith promise an up-tempo offense nearly every season, remember that it would be difficult for the Gophers to play any slower than they did a season ago when they averaged only 57.3 points per Big Ten game.
It's certainly easy to be optimistic in November. It's been months since anyone has lost a game. But for a Gophers team that played with so little confidence a season ago and looked so beaten down, anything is a positive.
For most teams, an exhibition victory over a Division II team is pretty much expected. But for the Gophers, beating Minnesota State Mankato was an improvement as Minnesota lost an exhibition game a year ago. And the Gophers scored 94 points in the process.
"I can't remember the last time I played on a team that scored 94 points in a game," Tollackson said. "I don't think we scored 94 points in a whole practice last season."
Smith needed the exhibition season as much as anyone. He needed to get used to Williams Arena's raised floor, calling it "interesting."
"I always worried that I was going to fall in the pit," Smith said. "You're kind of naked up there, lonely. I kept trying to move back closer [to the players]."
While the Gophers don't figure to be a contender this season -- an NIT appearance would be a significant accomplishment -- Smith is showing signs of moving Minnesota toward at least the middle of the Big Ten pack.
Smith has received four verbal commitments for next season from quality players. Paul Carter and Devron Bostick are junior college players expected to contribute immediately. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III (yes, the son of that Ralph Sampson) are promising high school frontcourt players. The Gophers are also in the mix for Canadian perimeter player Devoe Joseph.
This isn't an Ohio State-like recruiting class, but it is both a start and an upgrade over recruiting under Monson. The big test will come with the current high school juniors. If Smith can convince talented local players Royce White and Rodney Williams to stay, then he has certainly accomplished something.
That ability to come in and immediately land players is part of the reason why Smith said he doesn't think the Minnesota job will be as difficult as others believe.
"We're in the Big Ten; it's one of the best conferences in the country," Smith said. "They have had some outstanding players and some good teams in the past. It's not like we're dealing with some other circumstances that won't let you recruit, sanctions and other things that could limit what you can do.
"It was difficult at Kentucky as well, everyone was shooting at you, throwing rocks at you. It was like, 'Can y'all please shoot at someone else.' That's the way it goes."
Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi, who pulled off the coup of getting Smith to leave Lexington for a serious rebuilding job, has called Smith a rock star for the way he has brought attention back to the Gophers. At the same time, Maturi thinks coming to Minneapolis has been good for Smith.
"I think he's been rejuvenated, he's smiling again," Maturi said. "I don't know how hard he worked at recruiting before, but he's working really hard now."
As he prepares for his first season at Minnesota, Smith is beginning to get settled. He and his wife, Donna, have downsized from a massive house in Lexington to a townhouse just across the river from downtown Minneapolis (albeit a swank abode with a $1.35 million price tag, according to property records). Smith is enjoying living in a city instead of a college town.
Donna Smith, who has given away much of her blue wardrobe with the exception of several things that are now "in hiding," can see a change in her husband.
"He seems really recharged and really happy," she said.
Even Tubby himself acknowledges that moving to Minneapolis -- and accepting a challenge other than getting to the Final Four every year -- has been good. He's experiencing things he's never seen, and he's enjoying that (though he said he does miss the Keeneland racetrack in Lexington).
"I like the diversity of this community, there's so much to do, so many things to see," said Smith, who wants Minnesota to build a practice facility for his program. "It really is a metropolitan area and that's what we're trying to sell these young men when they come and visit. It's been great."
However, he does understand the reality of what he has to do: win games. While Smith has a free pass for this season and the expectations are much more realistic in Minneapolis than in Lexington, he still has to deliver.
"In the end, you still have to win," he said. "You have to produce, you have to put people in the stands. The difference here is the competition with the pro teams, but if you put a good product out there, a team that plays hard, I'm sure you'll see a groundswell and see the pendulum swinging our way."
It just might take awhile.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.