More than a year into Coach Tubby Smith’s tenure at Memphis, there are still picture frames leaning against the wall in his office within the athletics department building. He didn’t bother to put them up yet since, by the fall, he’ll be moving into a bigger space at the Tigers’ new practice facility being constructed on South campus.
At some point, though, Smith’s assistant coaches convinced him these temporary digs just looked too barren. “You need something in here,” they said, “something that will look good for the recruits.” So on the shelves of one bookcase sit various coach of the year awards accumulated during a 26-year head coaching career.
But, as he turned around to look at them Thursday morning during an exclusive interview with The Commercial Appeal, Smith again made it clear he feels no need to defend his recruiting practices in the wake of a tumultuous six-week period for Memphis basketball.
“Let’s face it: At Texas Tech and Minnesota, we weren’t going to get McDonald’s All-Americans,” said Smith, while noting the only McDonald’s All-American Memphis picked up in recent years was last year’s leading scorer, Dedric Lawson. “I don’t know what the whole beef is about. Competing in the world today for Memphis is a big difference than what it was 10 years ago.”
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Smith’s plan for rebuilding the Tigers is beginning to take shape now that he lured four junior college prospects to help replace the six players he lost to transfer since his first season at Memphis ended last month. Combined with the incoming freshmen he signed this past fall, the program will feature at least seven new players next year, and Smith indicated he hopes to add one or two more pieces before the offseason is complete.
But there continues to be skepticism among some fans about how the roster is being constructed, particularly because the 2017-18 team is likely to be the first the school has fielded in more than a decade that won’t feature at least two top-100 prospects. The Tigers’ 2017 recruiting class is ranked No. 61 in the country by 247 Sports, and fourth among American Athletic Conference teams.
Six-foot-4 Birmingham, Ala., guard Jamal Johnson is the first top-150 recruit Smith has landed in six years dating back to his stops at Minnesota and Texas Tech. He will also be the top-rated freshman entering the AAC next year, according to Rivals. Smith, however, said he pays little attention to those rankings, even though he concedes “it’s a big deal for the public and for fans and for alums.”
Ultimately, he added, winning is what counts most and he uses Johnson as an example of his methods.
“I don’t care if he’s a four-, five- or three-star. It doesn’t matter to me,” Smith said. “He fits what we want to do and the style of play and the kids I want to coach, and the type of kids that I think will represent this program.”
His most recent predecessors, John Calipari and Josh Pastner, routinely reeled in top-100 recruits to varying degrees of success. Calipari famously took the Tigers to the national championship game in 2008 with a nucleus of high-profile prospects, including future No. 1 NBA draft pick Derrick Rose. Pastner also had multiple four- and five-star recruits throughout his tenure, but never could advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Smith insisted, though, that the landscape is different now because of the growing gap in resources between Memphis and schools in the power five conferences. That distinction, he noted, influences recruiting. It’s why his perception of what prospects the Tigers should be pursuing at the moment differs from that of the fan base.
“I’m realistic about who we can get, for number one, and who we have a chance of getting,” Smith said. “That’s not denigrating the program at all. If we can get a five star, the No. 1 player in the country, hell yeah. We’re going to do everything we can. But when you take over a program, I don’t care where you are, there’s going to be a period there where you have to build your brand, build what you are.”
Another critique of Smith, in addition to who he recruits, revolves around who is doing the recruiting. All but one of the eight players added to the program since Smith’s hiring last April have been tied to assistant coach Joe Esposito, and none has been from the Memphis area. But Smith balks at any suggestion he should adjust his assistant coaching staff, which also includes Alvin “Pooh” Williamson and his son, Saul Smith.
Tubby Smith is loyal to them because all three have long histories with him. Williamson was his first recruit at Tulsa back in 1991, and Esposito has worked under Smith for a decade. Saul Smith played for him at Kentucky.
It was Williamson, Smith points out, who recruited most of the nucleus that helped Texas Tech make the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years in 2016. Saul Smith, his father added, had been serving in an administrative role for three seasons and only resumed recruiting full-time when he came to Memphis.
In general, though, Tubby Smith views recruiting as a team effort and that each assistant has a different role doled out by him. Esposito, for instance, had been in charge of monitoring the junior college ranks since last offseason, which put him in a more prominent position once the Tigers realized they would need to add more experienced options due to the roster turnover in recent weeks.
Saul Smith is responsible for scouting many of the under-the-radar prospects who approach Memphis, which means he’s sometimes recruiting high school players who are largely unknown in the Division-I recruiting world. Williamson heads up the Tigers’ local recruiting efforts.
But Tubby Smith does not ascribe specific titles, or recruiting wins, to each assistant because “we recruit as a staff,” he said. Each prospect is evaluated by everyone at some point during the recruiting process.
“They’re coming to play for University of Memphis and Tubby Smith. I’m the guy responsible for them. It’s as simple as that,” Smith said. “If (assistants) want to take credit for players, they’re going to take credit for the ones that don’t make it, either. We miss on some players, so I ask my staff, ‘How do we beat them? What do we have to do to beat those guys?’
“Do you go out and hire a new staff? No. You’ve got to figure out what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to and whether there’s a realistic chance.”
This, perhaps, is why Smith never thought of putting those trophies on display until his staff approached him with the idea. By now, he knows who he is and how he wants to operate, and no amount of pressure is likely to change that. Not after 576 career wins.
The lingering questions, which all usually lead back to whether his tenure at Memphis will be a successful one, don’t bother him. He’s heard them all before and they haven’t stopped him yet.
“When you get to a certain point in life and the business … your character, who you are, that comes through sooner or later,” Smith said. “People are going to say things about you. They’re going to do things. But they don’t know.”