I covered Smith’s first four seasons at Minnesota, where he led that disheveled program to multiple NCAA tournament appearances. Trust me. If you can convince kids to come and play in a city with two seasons -- winter and a teaspoon of summer -- you can sell them on Memphis. If you can win in Lubbock, Texas -- a five-hour drive from Dallas -- you can win in Memphis.
If you can win at Minnesota and Texas Tech without a practice facility, you can shine at a school that broke ground on a multimillion-dollar edifice last year.
If you can win with the unheralded athletes Smith molded into standouts -- guys named Lawrence Westbrook and Toddrick Gotcher anchored some of his best teams -- you can do plenty with the elite athletes he’ll chase at Memphis.
Folks will suggest an assistant such as former Memphis and NBA star Penny Hardaway could help Smith’s cause. Maybe. But Smith won’t let anyone dictate how he compiles his staff. And the folks at Memphis know that. Plus, his track record says he doesn’t have to.
It’s not easy to find success at multiple stops. However, Smith became the second coach in Division I history to lead five teams to the NCAA tournament when he guided Texas Tech to the Big Dance last month.
Will he establish a record and make Memphis the sixth?
It’s possible because Smith in Memphis makes sense. More sense than Smith to Minnesota or Smith to Texas Tech did. Yet, he managed to lead both previously docile programs to the NCAA tournament.
It’s not difficult to identify the challenges Smith might encounter at Memphis. It’s a complicated recruiting terrain. Great talent around the corner but will those players stay in town? Not that Smith only needs Memphis kids to win. He’ll recruit everywhere.
But talent isn’t enough. Smith won’t tolerate some of the troubled athletes Josh Pastner attracted. He’s not enamored with stars and accolades. Either way, he’ll hear from the supporters and the critics. The Tigers boast a smart, passionate fan base that will vocalize its concerns if the program falters under Smith.
Ask Pastner. Memphis never recovered after John Calipari left the scene in 2009. It’s a great job but not a simple job. Yes, everything is right there. But how do you bring it all together and win?
Pastner never answered that question. Smith will fail that test too unless he can accrue the talent necessary to elevate Memphis beyond the first-weekend mirages Pastner produced.
His great advantage over Pastner, however, is clear: Smith still means something in the South, especially to black families who watched him lead the Kentucky Wildcats to the national title in 1998 as the first black coach in the program’s history. The kids Smith will covet at Memphis won’t remember that run. But their parents will. And in the city that acted as a key hub in the civil rights movement, it’s not insignificant.
During his time at Minnesota, Smith lured top-100 prospect Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins -- the son of NBA coach Lionel Hollins and unrelated to the former -- from the Memphis area. That’s a drastic move. But their families wanted both African-American players to develop under someone they viewed as a coaching icon.
At Memphis, that’s still a component of his pitch. It should be.
He’ll also tell Memphis fans that the past years in Lubbock showed everyone he’s not done yet. That he can still coach at a high level, which wins over the Big 12’s best in 2015-16 demonstrated. He’ll tell Tigers fans that he’ll restore the program, lead it to a higher level. He’ll tell the city’s and region’s top players that he can help them grow if they come.
And if that’s not enough, he’ll just distribute copies of his résumé, which details a rich legacy he’ll extend with the Tigers in 2016-17.