- Tubby Smith left Texas Tech to take over a Memphis program that has not performed as well as expected since John Calipari left for Kentucky. Smith discusses the challenges he faces in taking over the Tigers.
With the 2016 college basketball coaching carousel finished, SI.com is checking in with all the major hires about their new gigs. These Q&As will be posted periodically throughout the summer. Next up is new Memphis coach Tubby Smith. He left for the Tigers after three seasons at Texas Tech. Smith replaces Josh Pastner, who left for the same post at Georgia Tech in April. This interview took place in April.
Sports Illustrated: You’ve said that you weren’t looking for a job away from Texas Tech, but the allure of Memphis intrigued you. Why?
Tubby Smith: Because they had had success. They had had a program that’s been able to compete for championships in every conference they’ve been in. And they’ve been in a few conferences over the years. That’s part of the changing landscape of college athletics, but I think it’s settled in now, as far as schools’ and conferences’ alignments. That was attractive, and having the ability to recruit players regionally, I think that helps.
And this is a good conference, the AAC. And just some of the things—their commitment to basketball with a new basketball practice facility going online. There are a lot of things, I guess. And it was regional, too—I’ve coached in Georgia and Kentucky, so I’m familiar with the area. Those things were attractive.
SI: Not a lot of coaches voluntarily move from Power Five programs to other conferences. Why did you feel like this was the right move?
TS: That’s one of those where you’ve got to wait and see. I think the coaches in this league—there are outstanding coaches in every league—but you look at Kelvin Sampson at Houston and Kevin Ollie at Connecticut—people that have taken teams and won championships at different places. There are quite a few in this league.
You mentioned Big 12 and the difference, and I knew that would be a question and a concern, but I felt comfortable at the time to make this decision and to move here. And [athletic director] Tom Bowen and the other folks around the program are committed to reach the highest pinnacle. And they’ve been there before, as a Final Four team twice [Editor’s note: Memphis has been to the Final Four three times, in 1973, 1985 and 2008. The latter two have been vacated by the NCAA.] That’s something that I think we can do here again.
SI: Not to take anything away from your other accomplishments—including your national title—but I felt what you did last season was one of your most impressive performances. Did you expect to have the kind of year that you did?
TS: We did. We were very young, but I knew we could compete. We had a couple of blowout games the year before—at Oklahoma, at West Virginia, at Kansas. We know there are tough places to go in and win, I don’t care what kind of team you have. But I thought our freshmen were really growing and maturing. And that’s the tough thing when you leave a program—leaving the people and the players and the administration there.
I knew we had a team that could be competitive. We tested ourselves and measured ourselves early on with a good non-league schedule against people like South Dakota State, Richmond, High Point, Hawaii, Little Rock—teams that had good years. And I knew because we competed so well in the non-league schedule, going to Puerto Rico and beating Mississippi State and beating Minnesota. I thought we could play with just about anybody. That gave me the confidence to instill confidence in the players. I said to them, “Look what we’ve done. We’re going to be able to compete.”
We got off to a rocky start in the league, but we really grew up. We had some adversity with [sophomore forward] Norense Odiase breaking his foot [in January]. We started three sophomores, a walk-on and a senior. And they were very, very competitive in every game. We felt like we were in just about every game—except for one or two—throughout the season.
And I think the trip to Canada really helped. We went on a foreign tour and played a few games up there, and I think the kids really bonded. We had the talent.
SI: This is mentioned essentially every time your name comes up: That you’ve taken five teams to the NCAA tournament, along with Lon Kruger. This will be your shot at a sixth. Do you think about that at all?
TS: No, I don’t. Not until people bring it up. In coaching, you have to focus on the big goal, which is getting players better. If you focus on players and people, all those other things are byproducts of what they’ve accomplished, not necessarily what I’ve accomplished. It’s about surrounding myself with the right people and the right players, surrounding myself with the right staff. That’s a big key.
And that’s the good thing about it—continuity and consistency have been keys to our success within our staff. The players are hearing the same message. Everyone is speaking the same language. That helps.
SI: You’re now moving to a place that said it had fallen below expectations just for missing the NCAA tournament twice in a row. You of course have coached at the place that probably has the highest expectations of any fan base in the country, with Kentucky. What’s the approach like here?
TS: First, no one sets expectations any higher than coaches do themselves. When people talk about expectations, I don’t care who you are, you want to do your best. There are always unforeseen issues, even in taking over a program here. We have to address a lot of things. There’s a reason why there was a dip, and that’s not necessarily because of the coaching. There are other things you have to address.
It’s going to take time. I’m pretty secure in what we do and how we do it. For the long-term, we will restore—Josh Pastner was a pretty good coach, did a pretty good job here, recruited some pretty good players—and now you have to address: Where do you go from here? Not necessarily understanding why that happened—but that is part of it. There are issues that you can only evaluate when you’re in the program and here on campus, and that’s what we’re doing at this time to make sure that the things that we need to address in all our areas to make sure that our players are comfortable. We want them to have all the resources they have available to them. It goes from academics to scheduling to social. We have to address all the issues. Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve done that. We’ve been successful. We’ve graduated our players.
And you’re right, the expectations aren’t different than anywhere else. Other than that they have had success at a different level at other players.
SI: Memphis graduates a few great seniors this year, particularly in Shaq Goodwin. As you look at the roster now, who do you see?
TS: I think the biggest challenge now is we have the frontline. We have some good depth in the backcourt with Markel Crawford and Jeremiah Martin and Craig Randall. We have K.J. Lawson who had some surgery [Editor’s note: Lawson underwent a procedure on his heel in April], and Nick Marshall is another good player. We lost a point guard (four-star Charlie Moore) who was the Mr. Basketball in Illinois—he decommitted. So we have some areas of concern.
SI: You’ve been out recruiting now. You’re a very well-known guy in coaching circles and with high school programs. Does it make a huge difference when you’re approaching with the Memphis polo vs. the Texas Tech polo?
TS: Everyone has an image or a profile that they project. You’re pretty much an open book in college. My record speaks for itself in what we can do and in getting players graduated. We’ve helped players become the best players possible and helped them reach their goals and their potential. The most important thing is we get the most out of them.
It does help to be at Memphis, but that’s not the whole message. The message is: When you put together your past record with future prospects of what you can accomplish, it does help. But I’ve always felt like you’ve got to get good players, coach them, give them confidence, get them to overachieve and play as one, you’ll work. And we’ve been able to do that at many different levels and with different levels of players. I’m not one who thinks that if you get All-Americans you’ll just win right away. You have to get them motivated and inspired as well.
SI: You’re 64 years old now. Does retirement ever cross your mind?
TS: Oh absolutely. When you take over a program like this you think to yourself, “Oh wow, I’m old.” But I’m energized. I still have a lot that I want to accomplish. I think that sharing my knowledge of the game and helping young people grow and be better—not just better players, but better people, better husbands and better fathers. And I want to help out my assistants and help them achieve their dreams.
We’re going to find a way to win. Our players will win, and our staff will find the best players. We’ll do a great job in recruiting and surround them with the right resources to help them grow. I feel like I have a lot left in my tank. We have a five-year deal, and I think I can get a lot accomplished in that time.
SI: Anything else in closing?
TS: I’ve been fortunate to work in some great institutions. And that’s kept me believing that I’m in it for the right reasons: We’re helping young people and their families, sometimes for generations. We have seen a lot of first-generation graduates. And that multiplies and inspires his family to do more and to do better. I’m just grateful for all these stops: Kentucky, Georgia, Tulsa, South Carolina, VCU—you name it. I’ve been very blessed in that regard. I want to thank all those people and all those players. That’s who I am—I’m a compilation of those people who have touched my life.