For as long as I can remember living in Minnesota, my dad has had season tickets to the Gopher’s basketball games. I’ve cheered for the gophers for about two decades. Going to “The Barn,” the home court of the Gophers, is my favorite sports viewing activity. I love the intensity of college basketball. I love the passion of the crowd. It’s a fun experience and a great venue to watch the game.
But it’s also been heart-breaking. Over the years, it’s been hard to watch the team struggle to regain some their former glory. In the late 80s and 90s under Clem Haskins, they put together some pretty good teams. They even made it to the Elite Eight in the ’89-’90 season (their appearance in the Final Four in 1997 was vacated for NCAA rules violations). Recently though, they’ve struggled. They missed the tournament for a number of years, and generally they just seemed to be underperforming for the talent that they were acquiring. That is up until they hired Tubby Smith. Smith is now in his third season, and the team is now finally becoming his own.
What strikes me as interesting is just how crucial Tubby’s role as a coach is. It’s a different sort of role than that of the coach in football. In football, the head coach has to make decisions. He calls plays. He decides whether or not to go for a first down when it is 4th and 1. He decides if it’s time for a punt or a field goal, and he chooses when, if ever, the team tries an onside kick. With basketball, the head coach will call scripted plays, and he may even call a timeout to make sure an exact play is run. But even then, the play may break down and the team ends up having to improvise. The head coach’s role in Basketball is much different than that of a head coach in football, but no less crucial.
In College Basketball, the head coach creates a culture, an atmosphere, in which the team can thrive and flourish. He has to know when to rest his players and how to encourage them to play up to and beyond their potential. In basketball, the head coach’s role is much more of the soft leadership than the hard functional leadership of a football coach. In basketball, Tubby has to keep streaking and slumping shooting guards focused on playing hard and staying positive. This leadership role is really made up of a lot of intangibles, in addition to all the standard coaching stuff like picking matchups and calling defensive formations.
And Tubby Smith seems to excel at this. Right now the Gophers are getting ready to play for the Big Ten Tournament final against Ohio State. They’re playing better than I’ve seen them play all year…better than they’ve played for many years, and I give much of the credit to Tubby. He’s found a way to motivate his players to greatness. He’s created a team environment (despite a plurality of setbacks this year with academic ineligibility and losing top recruits) that allows his players to thrive. This is hard. Like the sport of basketball itself, it requires flexibility and the ability to make decisions on the fly. He has to be able to improvise when new obstacles arise. Tubby’s rare. There are few coaches that can do this, and I’m glad he’s on the Gopher’s side.