Gophers make local stop

Tubby Smith was the headliner Monday as the University of Minnesota's Coaches Caravan began its last road trip with a stop at the Aad Shrine in Hermantown.

Tubby Smith was the headliner Monday as the University of Minnesota's Coaches Caravan began its last road trip with a stop at the Aad Shrine in Hermantown.

The caravan, expected to be in Grand Rapids and Baxter, Minn., today, has been cruising around the state promoting new coaches, a stronger athletic program and the university's new football stadium, set to open in 2009.

Smith left the University of Kentucky men's basketball program to help jump-start an ailing Gophers program that has had trouble keeping players in line and on the team.

"He brings integrity and class to our program," Minnesota women's basketball coach Pam Borton said of Smith. "He's had an impact on both the state of Minnesota and its university."

Smith, 55, has a 387-145 record in 16 seasons as a head coach, including 263-83 the last 10 years at Kentucky. At Minnesota, he succeeds Dan Monson, who was fired last November as the Gophers struggled and replaced for the rest of the season with interim coach Jim Molinari.


Smith signed a seven-year contract in March, reportedly worth $1.7 million per season. His hiring has brought a quick shot of credibility to Minnesota.

"He's not only a great basketball coach, but a great human being," said Minnesota women's hockey coach Laura Halldorson, also on the caravan tour. "He's a really good combination."

Smith spoke to a Hermantown crowd about recruiting high school players, keeping players with the team and counting on seniors Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie to develop a winning attitude.

"I'm just glad to be here," said Smith, who led Kentucky to the 1998 NCAA Division I championship in his first season there. "Every time I walk around campus, it's just something else. It's an exciting time to be a Gopher right now."

Smith coached Tulsa to a 79-43 record from 1991-95, then took over at Georgia for the school's first back-to-back 20 win seasons. In 1997, he went to Kentucky and was the second-fastest to win 100 games at the school, behind only Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp. Kentucky lost in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament.

Gophers fans from around the area came to Hermantown to welcome Smith, who isn't so new to the Northland. He regaled the audience with fishing stories from Rainy Lake, near International Falls.

Dick Swanson, the Duluth Denfeld girls basketball coach, knows Smith to be personable and has high hopes for what he can do for the Gophers.

"He's funny, smart and he's the face of college basketball," Swanson said. "He's a gentleman with a proven track record. Every high school player knows him; he's in the top four or five names in college basketball. With the lack of success we've had, this will be awesome."


New stadium

Borton said Minnesota's athletic program is becoming stronger thanks to a new coaching staff, which also includes football coach Tim Brewster, and a new on-campus football stadium set to open Sept. 12, 2009. The Gopher football team currently plays its home games at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Borton compared TCF Bank Stadium's impact to that of the Ohio State's Ohio Stadium, although Ohio Stadium has almost double the capacity.

"The new stadium will bring renewed energy and spirit," said Borton.

"It's going to be huge," said former Gophers lineman Joe Quinn. "To see that environment created around a Saturday football game is great, and the new stadium is going to bring that feeling back to campus."

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