Will latest big-name hire pay big dividends?
One of these big-name coaches is going to work out for Texas Tech, dang it. It seems inevitable that if you continually pull the crank on the high-roller slot machine, eventually it’ll turn up all 7s.
From Bob Knight to Pat Knight to Billy Gillispie to, if the reports are true, Tubby Smith, the Red Raiders keep looking to use their basketball coaching hires to make a splash. Easier said than done out on the plains of West Texas, but according to the Associated Press, Texas Tech and Smith have come to terms on an agreement to make Smith the fourth Red Raider basketball coach in the last four years.
Every Texas Tech basketball hire since James Dickey (1991-2001) has been a recognizable name with at least one unmissable blemish on his resume.
Bob Knight won three national championships at Indiana, but ended up at Texas Tech because the Hoosiers eventually had it up to here with his bullying behavior and ran him off. That he got the Red Raiders to the NCAA tournament four times in seven years was a strong enough argument for the school to hand over the program to his son, Pat, who had been an assistant under his father. But the Texas Tech job was Pat’s first head coaching gig, so there was no telling exactly what the program was going to look like under him. As it turned out, Pat could never quite get the same level of talent to Lubbock as his father had. His most successful season was 2009-10, when the Red Raiders went 19-16 overall, 4-12 in Big 12 play and lost in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Replacing Knight with Gillispie was a theoretically great move. The rap on Gillispie was that he’s a great coach whose biggest flaw was failing to live up to the enormous expectations placed on him at Kentucky.
But here comes the irony. Gillispie replaced Tubby Smith at Kentucky, because Smith (who won 76 percent of his games, including a national championship for the Wildcats) was thought to have gone stale after 10 seasons. So now Smith comes in to clean up Gillispie’s mess – and what a mess it is.
The days of Smith being considered some kind of messiah are over, but if what you’re after is a stabilizing force you can do a lot worse. The Texas Tech job is Smith’s fifth head-coaching gig, and his fourth in a major conference. He has won 69.3 percent of his games as a head coach and been at least as far as the second round of the NCAA tournament at every coaching stop (Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota).
And Texas Tech needs nothing more than stability at this point. This is a basketball program for which matching the talent of in-state conference rivals Texas and Baylor will be difficult enough. Their proximity to both Houston and the Metroplex give them an advantage in recruiting that doesn’t rely on the coach’s reputation or the school’s branding.
But the older Knight proved it was possible to get good enough players to Lubbock that you could compete on a night-to-night basis in the Big 12, which is rarely the most talented of the major conferences anyway. Knight finished with winning conference records in four of his six full seasons.
Knight, of course, largely relied on his name to accomplish that. While “Tubby Smith” doesn’t impose the same level of gravity on a living room as “Bobby Knight,” Smith still has a national championship ring he can shine up real good for the occasion, and if nothing else a prospective player ought to be able to feel pretty secure that Smith isn’t going anywhere. Smith, who was recently fired by Minnesota, hasn’t left a job of his own volition since 1997 and has stayed at least four years in every job except the Georgia one.
Smith’s career has developed a familiar pattern. He wins just enough to keep fans vaguely satiated without ever really making them happy. In retrospect, even that national title at Kentucky looks like it belongs partially to Rick Pitino, who left some treats in the cupboard when he left for the NBA.
The point is, there’s a reason Smith landed at Texas Tech and not UCLA. He’s a safe hire, not a sexy one.
That wasn’t the case with Gillispie or either of the Knights. Those hires weren’t safe, and only one of them worked out. For whatever reason Texas Tech seems to prefer to hire coaches with names everybody recognizes and for the Red Raiders that has meant taking some big swings.
Smith is a big name without representing a big swing. Maybe this is the middle ground Texas Tech has needed all along.