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VOL. 133 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 8, 2018

Tubby Time

Smith never knew how fast his clock was ticking

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University of Memphis head basketball coach Tubby Smith. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

At various points in his life, Guffrie Smith was a soldier, a barber, a farmer, and a school bus driver. These are not jobs that reward impatience. If you’re inpatient in those occupations, you or someone else gets hurt.

This was the man who raised Orlando Tubby Smith – the sixth of 17 children – in rural Maryland.

So Tubby Smith, 66, grew up in life, and in the coaching profession, believing that time was most often an ally to the wise. That patience was a virtue and there was truth to the idea that good things come to those who wait.

But in 2018, no one waits. Certainly not in big-time college athletics.

When the University of Memphis loses in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, and it will – be it the first game vs. South Florida or later – Tubby Smith will in all probability have coached his last game for the Tigers.

His replacement, barring an unforeseen turn of events, will be former Tiger great Penny Hardaway. He is, from all indications, the choice of the university and the masses to work at restoring a level of recruiting and excitement to the program – not to mention season ticket sales and donations – that was absent under Smith and that had started slipping away in the last two years under Josh Pastner.

Two years and happy trails, Tubby … that likely will be the legacy here.

In a meeting with media before the team left for the AAC Tournament in Florida, Tubby once again married his concept of time and patience with his upbringing from those simpler days in the country, saying, “It’s tough to cultivate and wait for the crop to grow.”

He wasn’t wrong, but it no longer matters. Not in 2018. If the crop is not ready when fans and boosters want it to be, they can move a president and an athletic director to just strike a match and start fresh.

Neither, by the way, is the latter concept wrong. We all live with a different reality of time because of technology and thus greater and more immediate expectations. Perhaps that’s not fair, but as Smith himself said on the subject of fairness: “Life is not fair to anybody.”

Even a guy with a national championship and nine Sweet 16 trips on his resume. Still, this all must seem a little surreal.

Less than two years ago, on Thursday, April 14, 2016, Smith was introduced as the new Tigers basketball coach. President M. David Rudd hailed it as a “historic hire” for the university and Smith the “most accomplished coach” to lead the program. Rudd and athletic director Tom Bowen handed Smith a five-year $15.45 million contract and then sat back and waited for the good times.

Unfortunately, Smith seemed to sit back as well. He eventually admitted that this job in this place, leading this program, was different than he had anticipated. The clock was ticking upon his arrival, but he never seemed to notice until well after multiple players, and his best players – Dedric and K.J. Lawson – had transferred and other college programs had come into the city to get a foothold with elite recruits.

It was as though Tubby believed cultivating the crop was wholly an organic process. That if great players were planted in Memphis, they would naturally blossom just around the corner at the U of M and would require no nurturing (attentive recruiting) on the head coach’s part.

This proved to be the worst miscalculation Smith made.

His first team won 19 games and then came that mass exodus of players. His second team, forged with junior college transfers and having just two returning players with real Division 1 time – Jeremiah Martin and Jimario Rivers – will also finish with no less than 19 wins and managed to get to fifth-place in the AAC after the coaches predicted the Tigers to come in ninth.

That, taken in a vacuum, was confirmation that Smith could still do what he had always done: coach ’em up. He learned early in life that nothing should go to waste and, for the most part, he was able to take the same approach with the players on his roster even after losing Martin to a season-ending foot injury.

But former Tiger Bill Laurie did not invest $10 million in that gleaming new practice facility that bears his name for his alma mater to continue playing its games before a more-than-half-empty FedExForum. Or for fifth-place finishes to be judged as some encouraging consolation prize.

Laurie, after all, played in that 1973 NCAA championship game vs. UCLA. Marginally being on the bubble of the NIT isn’t going to get the man’s adrenaline going. So rest assured if Tubby is out and Penny is in, it is with Laurie’s blessing/insistence and a realization that without such a change attendance and donations will continue to lag.

The timing, however, is lousy. Penny’s East High School team has a state tournament to play and the championship game won’t be until mid-March in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. East High School is expected to be in that game and it’s difficult to imagine Penny not wanting to coach it, which would put an appointment as head coach at Memphis on hold until afterward.

The expectation is that after Penny is named head coach, commitments from local top-tier talent will follow. Perhaps Cordova’s Tyler Harris in the class of 2018, and one, two or even three Top-40 players from the Class of 2019.

Talk about a bountiful harvest.

Meantime, Tubby and the Tigers took off for the AAC Tournament amid the nonstop chatter that a coaching change is imminent. Martin, who still has another season to play, said the players won’t concentrate on what’s out there in the media and will just go compete, adding that as long as Smith is the coach they will “play for him and honor his presence.”

Tubby Smith deserves that much consideration, at least. Even a decade ago, he would have merited another year or two.

But in 2018, time is no ally.

If today this still comes as a bit of a shock to the esteemed coach, that is an error in judgment Tubby Smith must reconcile with the man in the mirror.

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