First-year coach Tubby Smith brings a name and pedigree to Texas Tech, but he's also bring so much more.
Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach Tubby Smith
Rick Scuteri / USA TODAY Sports
By David Ubben
J.D. Barnett saw potential in his new young assistant coach at VCU, Tubby Smith. Barnett was only 35 when Smith, one of his former players at High Point seven years earlier, joined his staff back in 1979.
Just after hiring him, Barnett sat Smith down and told him he might be a pretty good coach one day, but he had to get organized first. He bought Smith a day planner.
"Before they had iPhones and all that other stuff, you had to write all those things down," Smith told Fox Sports Southwest this week.
It became more than a place to organize times and dates. It was a place for ideas and thoughts to find a home and a place to commit goals to paper.
After 521 wins as a head coach, 17 trips to the NCAA Tournament and a national title, Smith remains faithful to the practice of keeping a notebook. His first one had a goal that turned into a valuable lesson. He wanted to be a head coach and gave himself 5-6 years to make it happen. It took 12 years.
"Sometimes, you have to keep re-evaluating, renewing and rewrite your goals," Smith said.
Early in Smith's first head coaching job at Tulsa, an assistant suggested he start encouraging his players to pick up his habit by giving them notebooks.
He did exactly that.
Twenty years later, Texas Tech forward Jordan Tolbert sat on a plane and pulled out the notebook Smith gave him during the offseason.
The Red Raiders had beaten TCU just three days after upsetting No. 12 Baylor for the best win of Tolbert's two-plus seasons in Lubbock. It was the first time Tolbert had ever enjoyed consecutive wins in Big 12 play, and the Red Raiders won just one Big 12 game his freshman year.
"Focus on today or not yesterday or tomorrow," Tolbert wrote. "Let the past be the past, and not let it affect the future."
When Texas Tech hired Tubby Smith, his future players knew the name and face. They knew about the national championship and nine trips to the Sweet 16. The last nine months have been about learning everything they didn't know.
They learned their new coach was one of 17 children. They learned he'd been married to the same woman for 38 years. They learned when his 92-year-old mother died in October, he'd be in the gym helping them build a winning program right after the funeral.
"That meant a lot to me," senior forward Jaye Crockett said, who saw even more passion in Smith for coaching after his mother's death. "I respected him even more than I did before for that."
Hearing Crockett and Tolbert testify to Smith's coaching is a far cry from former coach Billy Gillispie, who resigned in 2012 amidts allegations of player mistreatment. Several players assumed interim coach Chris Walker would get the job after the season, but Smith, who had just been fired from Minnesota, had a name and pedigree too good for Tech to pass up. The Red Raiders contacted Smith the day after he had been fired.
"I wasnât ready to step away from the game," the 62-year-old Smith said. "Some people encouraged me to take some time off. You always want to be wanted, but itâs important to be needed."
"When Smith arrived at Texas Tech, he didn't bring sweeping change. He knew he was inheriting a team that would be adjusting to its fourth head coach in four years and had won just four Big 12 games over the past two seasons. Before this month, Texas Tech hadn't even led a Big 12 opponent in consecutive games since the 2010-11 season.
Early in conference play, his lessons have helped Texas Tech take steps toward progress after slipping to the Big 12 cellar and going more than half a decade without a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Red Raiders travel to face West Virginia on Wednesday night. A win would give Texas Tech consecutive road wins in Big 12 play for the first time in 15 years.
Last Wednesday, the win over Baylor snapped a 34-game losing streak to ranked opponents that stretched back to 2009.
"That was definitely something Iâll remember for the rest of my life," Tolbert said. "It was the first time Iâve witnessed something like that, where they stormed the court."
It's too early to tell if Smith's impact is a real turning point in Tech's efforts to regain Big 12 relevance, but this team may be the best Red Raiders squad since at least 2009-10, when they reached the NIT quarterfinals. A close loss to LSU on Dec. 18 told Smith his team was getting close. It proved it again in losses to West Virginia and Texas early in Big 12 play (Tech led in the final minutes of both), but the wins against Baylor and TCU reinforced that his principles were sticking to his new team.
"The more and more we came in and focused and bought in with blind faith, itâs been paying off," Tolbert said.
No payoff was bigger than the win against Baylor, and with 10 games against ranked teams coming up in their next 13 games, the Red Raiders will have plenty more opportunities to showcase even more growth.
"I just felt the whole program changed," Crockett said of Smith's arrival. "I think itâs going in a good direction with Coach Smith. Really, honestly, I wish I was playing for him for four years."
When Smith got to Lubbock, he discovered a team badly in need of a self-esteem boost. The losses had piled up and weighed down the team's collective confidence. One of his mantras early on has been pleading with his team to believe.
The 19th entry in Tolbert's notebook tells him to envision bad things happening. Then, it tells him to imagine himself and his teammates overcoming them.
After racing to a 22-8 lead at TCU on Saturday, Texas Tech gave up a 16-1 run in the final seven minutes of the first half to trail at halftime. The Red Raiders rallied for an 11-point victory, snapping a 12-game road losing streak.
Neither player's college career has gone like they imagined, but they can help lay the foundation for better days in Lubbock. Plenty more notebooks will be handed out in years to come, and a strong finish to the season could mean entries take on a brighter tone teamwide in years to come.
Tolbert often finds himself flipping back to one specific phrase in his own notebook.
"Life is not a race," it reads, citing a quote from an unknown author, "but a journey to be savored every step of the way."