Tubby Smith talks leadership, Gopher hoops in northern Minnesota visit

CASS LAKE, Minn. Tubby Smith has preached his commitment to University of Minnesota basketball and athletics in greater Minnesota since taking over the Gophers men's basketball program two years ago. He showed his commitment in action by giving a...

Smith talks at Cass Lake
University of Minnesota men's basketball coach Tubby Smith gave a speech on leadership following a coaches clinic at Cass Lake-Bena, Minn., High School during a northern Minnesota visit. Bemidji Pioneer File Photo/Eric StromgrenOffer


Tubby Smith has preached his commitment to University of Minnesota basketball and athletics in greater Minnesota since taking over the Gophers men's basketball program two years ago.

He showed his commitment in action by giving a coaching clinic and a public speech Wednesday at Cass Lake-Bena High School.

According to Cass Lake-Bena boys basketball coach Dan Ninham, Smith's visit to Cass Lake marked the first time a Gopher men's basketball coach has visited the area in 35 years -- dating back to Bill Musselman's visit to Red Lake.

Out of concern for NCAA recruiting rules, Smith's clinic and speech on "Leadership On and Off the Court" was open to adults only.


He spoke to a group of 25 for over an hour on how family influenced his leadership style and other aspects of leadership.

"To me, leadership starts with love, family and discipline," Smith said. "As a leader, you have to set by example."

For Smith, one of those examples was his visit to Cass Lake.

"I would like to coach the kids at camps, but the NCAA won't allow us to do that," Smith said. "I was afraid of making a violation, but I had already made a promise to Dan (Ninham) to come up here. You never promise more than you can do but you always keep your promise...I think that's one reason why I've stayed in this business so long."

Another area of leadership Smith touched on was community service.

"Leadership means serving," Smith said. "Something I stress to my players is giving back to the community, giving back to charitable groups and going to speak at elementary schools - reading at elementary schools -- anything you can do to give back. ... The leaders out there in our government, communities and our neighborhoods are out there leading and they're not doing it to get their name in the paper. They're doing it because they care."

Smith tied community service into family values.

"My father used to say 'all you have really is our name and what you do. And you will honor and respect others and you will honor and respect family,'" Smith said. "When you do that, we all need that - I wouldn't call it pressure - but we need that discipline around us and good leaders have that."


Smith is an 18-year coaching veteran who has coached 17 NBA players and won a national championship coaching at Kentucky in 1998.

He believes that effective leaders also know how to take criticism.

"Being a leader means you have the willingness to stand for something you believe in and take charge," Smith said. "Leaders have good people around them and people who won't just say 'yes' to them. I try to surround myself with assistant coaches who are strong men that can stand up and fight what they believe in and help us become better people. They have goals, ideas and dreams."

Taking questions, Smith was asked who he felt would be the team leader for the Gophers next season.

"One thing I believe is that everyone on the team should be a leader," Smith said. "Last year it was (Jamal) Abu- Shamala and he ended up being the student athlete of the year at Minnesota. I haven't found out who that leader is going to be yet. I think we're close, but we need to find that right away."

Smith said he believes Damian Johnson, Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook have the potential to develop into team leaders next season.

Smith said he may consider doing a tri-captaincy next season, something he did not consider over his first two seasons because he felt the need to have more control over the rebuilding process.

Minnesota went 20-14 in Smith's first season as head coach in 2007-08. Smith guided the Gophers to a 22-11 record last season and a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It marked the first time the Gophers reached back-to-back 20-win seasons in program history.


Smith also talked about his perceptions of high school and youth basketball in Minnesota.

"I'm very impressed with basketball around here with the teaching, coaching and commitment ... there's a good balance and there's good relationships between the high schools, traveling teams and youth teams. Cass Lake has had some great teams here. In the metro area, there were 15-16 players that went Division I." said Smith, who then talked about the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, the conference Bemidji State competes in. "There's also such a good Division II system in the state. I'll tell you right now that Winona State can play with anyone. Mankato is pretty good too. St. Thomas had that record winning streak - there's talent at every level. The good thing about this area is the players have a place to go. That's what impresses me. They have a level they can find themselves."

Smith was brought to Minnesota partially to recruit Minnesota players and he landed two of the state's top players this year in Mr. Basketball Royce White (Hopkins High School) and Rodney Williams (Robbinsdale Cooper High School), but he acknowledged the options graduating players have can make challenges on the recruiting trail.

"It can be tough for us to compete because of that and I wish we had more scholarships because we've lost some players to Wisconsin and other schools in the area," Smith said. "But I think we've got two of the best players in Minnesota (White, Williams). I'd like to get them all and I wish we had a scholarship for every single player, but we don't."

Cass Lake-Bena volunteer assistant coach Rod Northbird's exchange with Smith was one of the highlights of the speech.

Smith asked Northbird what he thought of Gopher basketball and what the program needed to do.

"Just win," Northbird said, which drew a smile from Smith. "Everyone wants Minnesota basketball to be successful and that doesn't mean just by winning every game - it means just being respected again. Personally, I want you to put the best team out on the floor and have the players conduct themselves on the court in a way that reflects how they conduct themselves off the court."

Smith agreed with Northbird's view and stressed how the Gopher basketball places a priority on academics and graduation rates.

Northbird closed out the speech by singing an original song he wrote. Northbird said the song "I'll Always Be Behind You" is a song he sings at special events and was appropriate for Wednesday's setting.

Smith was also presented with wild rice from Cass Lake-Bena Athletic Director Michael Hanson and a Pendelton pillow from Sue Ninham.

Smith was brought to Cass Lake in part by sponsorship from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

"Anything to do with sports and leadership is something we're interested in," Tribal Councilor Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird said.

Dan Ninham was also appreciative of Smith's visit.

"He's the big time right there," Ninham said. "He also wanted to come up here and support northern Minnesota basketball. We're happy to have him here."

The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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