So it's rather peculiar how these two prominent basketball coaches, on two very different roads, crossed paths last March in Lexington. "Amazing," Smith said. "If I hadn't been able to talk with them at that time, who knows. Fate or whatever you want to call it."
Smith was losing favor with Kentucky fans at the time. After winning the NCAA title in his first year, Smith's Wildcats never made it back to the Final Four.
Two consecutive losses in the NCAA tournament's second round led to
Smith said he was notified by his lawyer that Minnesota was interested in interviewing him, and even though he knew the job was available, he hadn't thought about the possibility of becoming the Gophers' head coach.
That's when Smith said he spent a day watching the Kentucky high school basketball Sweet 16 event at Rupp Arena in Lexington. It's one of two single-class state basketball tournament remaining in America, and Smith said it's a gathering point for past Kentucky basketball legends to rehash old memories.
"A lot of people like Clem Haskins, who won a championship at his high school, they come back for that occasion," Smith said.
Soon after, Smith ran into Haskins and former Minnesota Timberwolves coach
The trio discussed the region, the people and the team itself. Smith said the personnel he will be surrounded with is important in that type of decision. "I had to talk with someone who had been there before," Smith said. "It's not just about bricks and all that other stuff. It's about people."
Clearly, winning follows a similar equation. Smith's five SEC titles coupled with two Missouri Valley Conference championships during his career leaves him one shy of Minnesota's entire team history. The Gophers, excluding Haskins' 1997 scandal-ridden season that was officially negated, have won the Big Ten eight times and haven't done so since 1982.
It's also apparent that the work-ethic Smith brings to the program is making team members happy he left Lexington. "He's really business about it," Gophers senior
Tollackson called Smith's workouts "NBA Pro-time," because of the severe number of shots he makes them put up and the intensity of the practices. Smith shrugs, saying if there's one thing his team won't be this year, it's outworked.
But senior forward Dan Coleman said it's more of a mentality that Smith brings that makes him feel fortunate for the first-year head coach's somewhat unconventional way of finding Minnesota.
"Coach Smith is very positive, very uplifting, very engaged," Coleman said. "I'm just trying to soak it all up and learn."
It all adds up for Smith. Taking over a program that accumulated 22 losses for the first time in team history might not seem like the ideal location for a former national championship coach in high demand, but he took special interest in what Haskins had to say.
"He's a guy in the business who you look up to as a guy who took over a program here and did a good job," Smith said. "He had it on the upswing, on the up tick; unfortunately he had the issues that he had."
Now, Smith's path led him away from Haskins and into Haskins' old territory. It's his task, free of scandal, to take the Gophers with him toward success.