ATHENS — Within minutes — literally, almost simultaneously — of Thad Matta’s decision to turn down Georgia’s basketball coaching job, Tubby Smith walked out of a meeting in Memphis in which he was shocked to have learned he was fired.
It was a coincidence. The two events are unrelated. But could it be fate? Could it be providential?
I don’t know that, but I know this: Smith would come back to the Georgia Bulldogs if they would have him.
I called Smith’s agent, Ricky Lefft, as soon as I saw a tweet that Smith had been fired. I’ve known him since he represented Smith when he was Georgia’s coach 21 years ago, and he also represented Dennis Felton several years thereafter. So we have a pre-existing relationship.
At the moment I caught him, he and Smith were still trying to process what just happened. To say they didn’t see it coming wouldn’t be accurate, because they’ve been embroiled in some turmoil there at Memphis for a while (imagine that). But, suffice it to say, they don’t agree with the decision.
Smith compiled a 40-26 record in two seasons at Memphis, including 21-13 this season, but the fan base was not happy with that. Smith arrived from Texas Tech with the assurance from the university president that he would be given a full recruiting cycle — meaning more than two years — to get the Tigers’ program back on track.
But ultimately that patience was not extended. Between sagging attendance, the controversial transfer of some local players and their dad/assistant coach to Kansas and a not-so-subtle coup effort by former player Penny Hardaway, Smith was blamed for all the Tigers shortcomings. So he was fired.
That’s the bad news for Smith. The good news is he believes he was fired without cause and will walk away with more than $10 million.
But according to Lefft, he’s not ready to retire.
“He’s still got energy, still wants to coach,” Lefft said. “He still knows how to develop players.”
The question is, of course, is this: Would Georgia want Tubby back? He’s 66 now and has had four jobs since he left Athens.
Nobody really could blame him when he went to Kentucky in May 1997. At the time, Smith was about to receive a raise that would see him earn $800,000 for the 1997-98 season. The Wildcats offered him $1.6 million. Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley didn’t counter, and that was that. Smith won a national championship with Kentucky that very next year.
To say it went downhill from there would be an overstatement, but Smith never won another national championship with the Wildcats. In fact, they never made it back to the Final Four. They parted ways in 2007, and Smith landed at Minnesota.
Smith took the Gophers to three NCAA Tournament appearances and two NIT trips in six seasons, but he left for Texas Tech in 2013. After two disappointing seasons, Smith finally got the Red Raiders into the NCAA Tournament in 2016, and then Memphis came calling.
The last time I talked to Tubby was while he was still in Minnesota. I can’t remember the initial purpose of my call — some feature story I was doing — but he told me then that those two years at Georgia remain “the best time I ever had in coaching basketball.” Smith famously led the Bulldogs into the Sweet 16 in 1996, where they lost to Syracuse on a prayer of a buzzer-beater in overtime. The next year, they won 23 games and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament but were upset in the first round.
And then he was gone.
Tubby said neither he nor his wife Donna wanted to leave or had any expectation of leaving when that call came. He just felt like he couldn’t turn down a dream opportunity such as the one he got from Kentucky.
Now Smith is 66. His sons G.G. and Saul — both of whom signed scholarship offers with the Bulldogs — are now grown but remain in basketball. They all like the idea of coming back to Georgia.
But would Georgia have him back? That’s a question I have to ask you guys.
All indications are former Indiana coach Tom Crean is next on the list for the Bulldogs. The 51-year-old already has been in contact with UGA officials and expressed interest in the job. Maybe he’ll be the next coach.
But would Crean be better than Smith, who already knows the lay of the land at Georgia and in the South?
And what about this scenario? Another popular candidate among hardcore Georgia basketball crowd is Jonas Hayes. The 36-year-old Atlanta native and Bulldogs letterman has been on Georgia’s staff since 2012 and is credited for being the team’s lead recruiter the last several years. He’s the one who landed Yante Maten from Detroit, and Hayes is at least partially responsible for helping Georgia build what was once the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting Class for 2019. In fact, several current recruits are saying that Hayes remaining on the Bulldogs’ staff would be crucial to them sticking with decisions to attend UGA.
Even before all the Matta drama materialized, I heard from a UGA athletic board emeritus member and basketball booster who suggested bringing back Smith with the idea of also having him groom Hayes as a sort of “head coach in waiting.” At that point, Smith was known only to be unhappy at Memphis.
Now, Smith is out at Memphis, with $10.2 million in his pocket, or soon to be. Nobody knows whether he would go for such an arrangement, specified or loosely suggested. He has sons of his own who are in the business.
But if he loves Georgia as much as he says he does and wants to do the best for school while continuing his own career, I’d say it’d be worth floating to him. To me, it sounds like a match made in heaven: Smith and Hayes joining forces to put a fence around the state and bring glory to Georgia basketball.
But it’s not an automatic. Besides the Crean factor — and other possible candidates already in the chute — Hayes is getting head coaching looks of his own. Word is Western Carolina wants him right now as its head coach. He and his twin brother, Jarvis, started their careers at Western Carolina before transferring to Georgia and helping Jim Harrick win a bunch of games. If true, that certainly would seem to be a tempting offer for Hayes, who needs to find out for himself what kind of in-game coach he might be.
But we know Smith knows what he’s doing. Who better could he learn from than a national championship-winning coach from the South who has proved he knows how to get it done at Georgia?
Sounds like the best of both worlds if you ask me.