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Former Gophers coach Smith gets an assist for Texas Tech rise

Former Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach Tubby Smith talks to forward Norense Odiase (32) and guard Keenan Evans (12) during a 2016 game. Smith, a former Minnesota head coach, started Texas Tech's turnaround. Michael C. Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Texas Tech will make program history Saturday night, April 6, at U.S. Bank Stadium, when it appears in the Final Four for the first time.

In just his third season at the helm, Red Raiders coach Chris Beard has his program reaching new heights.

First, an Elite Eight appearance a year ago. Now the national semifinals. No one pictured these types of results from Texas Tech. But ask Beard about that, and he’ll be the first to tell you he didn’t take over any type of cellar dweller.

“We inherited a good situation,” he said.

Indeed. Beard took over an NCAA tournament team in 2016. That’s a far cry from an eight-win season.

That was Texas Tech’s win total in 2011-12 in its one year under Billy Gillespie. He resigned a month before the start of the following season, Chris Walker took over on an interim basis, and Texas Tech won 11 games.

Two years and 19 wins. Not great.

That’s the spot Texas Tech was in during the spring of 2013, when the Red Raiders caught a break -- the Minnesota Golden Gophers fired Tubby Smith. Texas Tech hired him a week later.

“Texas Tech took a chance on me,” said Smith, who is now the coach at High Point.

And he took a chance on it. When Smith took the Texas Tech job, the Red Raiders had made one postseason appearance in six years — a trip to the NIT quarterfinals. Four of those seasons featured losing records.

“Yeah,” Smith said, “it was in bad shape.”

But he was used to turning programs around. He took Georgia to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in the late 1990s and took over a Gophers program that won nine games in the 2006-07 season and proceeded to win 20-plus games in five of his six seasons in Minnesota.

Smith has a certain model he follows when rebuilding programs.

“It’s all about, A, building some integrity and goals and standards that you have to set for players, the staff, fans, everyone involved,” Smith said.

He talks about building programs “the right way,” meaning looking for players who have character and “are of substance” who you can trust will do what they’re supposed to do on and off the court. It starts, he said, with education.

But they have to know how to play, too. And while he knows he and his staff have been “maligned” for their recruiting at times, he said they’ve “done a good job everywhere we’ve been.”

His reputation helped him bring players to Texas Tech, a program without much in the way of tradition, as did previous relationships. Smith was able to bring guys like Justin Gray and Keenan Evans because he’d either coached against or previously met their fathers.

“So we had a tie-in, and people believed in us,” said Smith, who won a national championship with Kentucky. “And my record spoke for itself. So they knew we were going to take care of their sons and develop them into young men that were good citizens.”

He emphasized on-court development but also enhancing players’ social and spiritual lives by having them attend church with him and holding team gatherings at his house. Smith wanted his players to be close, but also wanted them to hold one another accountable.

The results didn’t immediately show. Texas Tech won just 14 games in Smith’s first season. He expected the program to make a leap in Year 2, but the transfer of Jordan Tolbert, one of the team’s best players, to SMU stunted progress.

Finally, in Year 3, things clicked. Texas Tech won 19 games, including nine in the Big 12, and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. For the turnaround, Smith was named Sporting News’ Coach of the Year.

That was his final season at Texas Tech. He left to take the job at Memphis.

Smith admits it was hard leaving his players, but added it’s “part of the business.” Still, he took comfort knowing the job he’d done in Lubbock.

“We left the place better than we found it at every place we’ve ever been,” Smith said.

When Smith leaves a job, he makes a point to help his successor transition into the position. It was no different with Beard.

“It was really cool inheriting something that he has built because you really get to know somebody in the coaching,” Beard said. “You feel like two days on the job, two weeks on the job, you really get to know the coach before you, even if you never talked to him, because you inherited some stuff that he built.”

It went beyond professional courtesies for Beard.

“I have the ultimate respect for Coach Smith and his wife, Mrs. Smith,” Beard said. “I love Coach Smith so much, I bought his house from him.”

That’s still a sore spot for Smith -- not because of who bought it, but the price Beard paid.

“No, he stole my house,” Smith said with a laugh. “I don’t want to talk about that. He got a great deal. No wonder he’s so relaxed and doing so well, it’s a pretty comfortable house.”

Things didn’t work out for Smith in Memphis and he was fired after just two seasons in which Smith won 40 games, but didn’t make the NCAA tournament and saw attendance dwindle. In hindsight -- which he notes is “always 20-20” -- maybe it would have been better for Smith to stay at Texas Tech. But, he said, “you can’t look back.”

Still, remnants of the Smith era are still around the Red Raiders’ program. Evans was Texas Tech’s top scorer on last year’s Elite Eight team. Norense Odiase, another Smith recruit, is a rotation player on this year’s team. Maybe it’s small, but Smith played at least some part in this Final Four run.

“Wherever you’ve had an opportunity to work or live and coach, you always take, I can’t say pride,” Smith said, before pausing to reconsider, “but I do in Texas Tech, because it was a great place to live, and they’ve been extremely successful. … I’m excited for them.”

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