VOL. 131 | NO. 75 | Thursday, April 14, 2016
The Press Box
Memphis Gets Proven Commodity in Tubby Smith
By Don Wade
It started immediately, before the hiring was even official. The audible sighs on sports talk radio, the Twitter whining, and the figurative eye-rolling.
Tubby Smith? Really? That old guy?
If they didn’t call him “old” outright, they inferred it in every way imaginable.
What is the University of Memphis thinking, the under-40 masses wondered, considering a basketball coach who actually remembers the rise of the coin-operated vending machine and life before the 3-point shot?
In this country, age discrimination never goes out of style.
Yet Hubie Brown was 70 when he led the Grizzlies to their first postseason appearance. Mike Krzyzewski is 69, Gregg Popovich is 67, Tubby Smith is 64, and Josh Pastner and Tyron Lue are 38.
Younger’s always better? That’s your argument?
I know, there’s disappointment because many of you bought into the Gregg Marshall leaves Wichita State pipe dream. It would have required boosters and university president David Rudd and athletic director Tom Bowen to sell today’s soul and mortgage tomorrow’s. And it still might not have been enough.
Funny thing is, even Marshall wouldn’t have qualified as a young coach. He’s 53. For all we know, he and Tubby listen to the same music.
Now Tubby, I will grant you, does sound even older than he is. It’s a throwback kind of name. So it adds to reflexive fears about how he might relate to kids and inspire recruits. No doubt, he will need a couple of young assistants willing to pound the AAU pavement. I get that. Sure he does, too.
But remind me again how many players young Josh Pastner lost in recent years, and wasn’t his best player, Austin Nichols, willing to leave his hometown to get a fresh start elsewhere?
Look, as has been said in this space before, there are no guarantees in the coach-hiring business. Just because Tubby Smith has taken five different schools – Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and this past season Texas Tech – to the NCAA Tournament does not ensure Memphis will be the sixth.
That said, the Tubby Smith resume is substantial: national title at Kentucky in 1998; took the Wildcats to three other Elite Eights; led Tulsa, at the start of his head coaching career, to back-to-back Sweet 16s; and has 18 NCAA Tournament appearances total.
So if considering all that it still bothers you that Tubby can order the Denny’s Senior Slam, well, good luck with your gerontophobia.
When Kentucky hired him before the 1997-98 season, it was a trailblazing move. It might be difficult to comprehend now, but back then some people were surprised that Kentucky was willing to hire an African-American men’s basketball coach; because it was understood that there were elements of the Bluegrass fan base that would struggle to accept it.
And it was true that some fans, those who made their homes under rocks, weren’t ready. Then he won a national championship his first season in Lexington.
At that point, Tubby was no longer black. He was just Tubby, and Big Blue head to toe.
No one is suggesting there is a national championship in the waiting here, by the way. There may not be a Sweet 16 for a few years. The talent on hand is different and the job ahead of him is much bigger, although Dedric Lawson’s return is a nice start.
But if Tubby Smith does not restore Memphis to its rightful place – not Kentucky’s rightful place, mind you – but the Tigers’ rightful place, it probably won’t be because of age.
In his third season in Lubbock he led the Red Raiders to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years and was voted Big 12 Coach of the Year.
The city of Memphis is brimming with promising recruiting classes. He has won everywhere he has been.
Orlando Henry “Tubby” Smith, 1973 graduate of High Point (N.C.) College and, yes, old enough to remember the moon walk and the Cuban Missile Crisis, will win here, too.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.