The Texas Tech brass could have gone two different ways with their most recent basketball hire. The first, and the approach regarded as most likely according to received wisdom, was to hire a young, energetic coach with the reputation of a great recruiter. According to this school of thought, the Red Raider basketball program was merely a marquee player or two away from becoming a good one, and a young coach was most likely to succeed in reeling in such players.
The second, and minority position, was that the Tech program, buffeted by myriad coaching changes and a string of losing seasons, needed a stable, veteran coach who was a good bet to right the ship and get the program on a paying basis. Now was not the time to gamble on an unproven commodity.
With the hiring of Orlando "Tubby" Smith, it is clear that the second position won out. Observers of the program will doubtless weigh in on why Kirby Hocutt signed a veteran rather than a parvenu, and the relative benefits and demerits of this decision, but that is all by the by. The ultimate authority sided with Tubby Smith rather than a golden boy, and that's really all there is to it. The ink is dry on the contract, and Smith is decorating his office. The only thing that matters now is how well Smith will do in the job.
There is, of course, a rather clear precedent in recent Tech basketball history for the hiring of Tubby Smith. And that precedent is auspicious.
In 2001, the Red Raider basketball program was down and out. Tech, on a steady downhill slide following NCAA sanctions stemming from various academic violations, concluded the 2000-01 season with a dismal 10-18 mark. Then head coach James Dickey still had his share of staunch defenders, but athletic director Gerald Myers gave Dickey the boot, and, with the hiring of legendary coach Bob Knight, most of the Dickey din was quieted.
Nevertheless, there were some naysayers. The skeptics argued that Knight, aged 61, was too far beyond his prime to resurrect a moribund Tech program. They said that Knight, not noted as a sterling recruiter even in the best of times, would be unable to lure enough talent to Lubbock to be competitive.
The doubting Thomases were wrong.
Knight, coaching like the Wizard of the Wabash of old, immediately elevated the Red Raiders not merely to competitiveness, but to an NCAA tourney berth in his first season on the High Plains. Tech finished Knight's inaugural season with a 23-9 mark, following a loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Red Raider fans got everything they could have reasonably hoped for and more.
And the glory lasted several more seasons, as the General led Tech to further NCAA tournament appearances, and at the apogee, an appearance in the Sweet 16. No, Knight did not win a national championship at Tech as he did thrice at the University of Indiana, but by any reasonable standard, his tenure in Lubbock was a success.
The parallels between Knight and Tubby Smith are striking.
Like Knight, Smith is aged 61 as he takes the reins at Tech. Knight took over a program that had just gone 10-18; Smith inherits a team that went 11-20. Both coaches were fired from Big 10 programs, and both have the reputation of being elite coaches, if on the downhill side of their careers. Knight is a College Basketball Hall of Famer, and it is merely a matter of time before Smith receives the same honor.
But can Smith author a one-year turnaround after the fashion of Bob Knight? Do the parallels between the two Tech coaches portend similar results?
First, it must be noted that the past has no power over the present. What Knight accomplished in 2001-02 has only the most remote bearing on what Smith will do in 2013-14. Still, drastic improvement is not out of the question.
Knight was fortunate enough to walk into a program with concealed talent in the form of Andy Ellis and Andre Emmett. Both players flourished under Knight and become Big 12 superstars. Knight added a third star in lightly regarded junior college prospect Kasib Powell, as well as other JUCO-borne role players in Will Chavis, Nick Valdez and Pavel Storozinski.
Smith's cupboard is similarly stocked with players who could blossom next season. Senior Jaye Crockett received some All Big 12 notice and could be primed for a huge senior season. Sophomore point guard Josh Gray is the most talented guard to wear a Red Raider uniform in many a year. He was developing into a true point guard late last season, and there's every reason to believe that maturation could quicken under the experienced tutelage of Smith.
It may only remain to plug in a few of the right players for Smith to ignite this program. And while, as has been belabored to the point of utter banality, the west Texas high school basketball scene does not throw off McDonald's All Americans in abundance, this area does have numerous junior colleges which produce quality players.
Smith will be able to recruit Odessa, Clarendon, Frank Phillips, Howard, Midland, South Plains, Ranger and Western Texas colleges. Combined, those junior colleges likely produce D1 prospects in numbers similar to the city of Dallas. If Smith can scoop the cream of that crop, he will be on the road to rapidly rebuilding the Tech program. Perhaps as soon as next year.