With simple gesture, Smith proves he's a player's coach
It was a brief few moments in the game, probably largely overlooked by the casual fan.
It takes a little patience to even find mention of it in the official final book of stats and game notes.
To set the stage briefly, K.J. Lawson led Memphis in minutes last night with 27. That total included the first 16 minutes of the second half. File that fact away for just a moment.
Dedric Lawson played 25 minutes in all. He was subbed out of the basketball game, presumably for good, with 9:54 left in the game.
Yet look again at the official book; there it is, on page six (6), he re-entered the game with 7:47 to go and made his final exit at the 6:11 mark.
What was that about?
It was Tubby Smith proving beyond the shadow of any sliver of a doubt that he is a “player's coach.” And it could very well be a defining moment in the Tubby Smith era, which only began officially a week and a couple days ago.
Coach Smith has his players' backs when they go hard for him.
K.J. Lawson ended the night leading the team in minutes played and tied for the rebounding lead with his brother, Dedric at 10 apiece. When Dedric left the game with 9:54 remaining, though, he had exactly 9 boards.
K.J. didn't corral carom #10 until there were 6 minutes, 11 seconds remaining. He left the game less than three (3) minutes later when Coach Smith sent out a brand new five with 3:37 left to go.
That, ladies and gentleman, was a classy move by a wily veteran who knows how to extract every single bit out of his players.
K.J. Lawson noticed and is grateful to his coach for it.
“Coach Smith realized how close we (were to double-doubles), one rebound away,” he began. “It's just thanks to Coach. He didn't have to put us back in. He could've just let those other guys play.”
Neither did Dedric Lawson take the gesture lightly.
“Like K.J. said, thanks to Coach Smith. I appreciate it!” he said with a grin and to widespread laughter in the media room. “It definitely means something to me. That's just showing that the coaches care.
“(Coach Smith) understands when kids (are) in college and goals that individuals are trying to reach. . . Just shout out to Coach for being receptive of individual goals.”
If there is any single statement that exhibits the stark contrast since Tubby Smith first walked onto the campus of the University of Memphis, it is that one.
Late in the Josh Pastner era, it was always apparent that the players loved him. They fought for him with their words, and sometimes with their actions. But not enough to save his job. That's because they just didn't 1) respect him enough to truly buy into his philosophies and 2) trust him enough to fully subject their wills to his.
I think there was a simple reason for all of that. I think the players felt that the love and caring was sometimes one-sided. . . and in the wrong direction. They were trying their best to win games and help save their coach's job. Because he constantly reminded them that his job was on the line.
But when it came time to focus, even for a moment, on <i>their</i> goals and desires, did they get the same level of intensity and passion that was asked of them?
Consider that a rhetorical question.
This is not to throw stones at Josh Pastner, who is a good and honorable man. He did a remarkable job of keeping the Memphis basketball program relevant, no matter what his (many) critics may scream with derision.
But he didn't do enough to make his players feel secure in the belief that he had their backs. He wasn't above throwing a player under the bus in the media, which isn't necessarily a terrible thing at times, but in the context of the train wreck that was the final year of his career here, it became unconscionable.
No, this isn't to slander Josh Pastner. It is fully intended to praise Orlando “Tubby” Smith. He's a different breed of coach.
He's old school, of course. Yet there's more to it than that. Because old school coaches don't typically insert a superstar back into a game just to get a rebound so he can have a double-double in the books.
Tubby Smith is a class act. He's a man who believes in doing what's right simply because it's right, not because he has anything in particular to gain by doing so.
The by-product of such behavior, though, is players who will go above and beyond to please their coach. And when a couple of those guys are as big and talented as the Lawsons, well, the coach will inevitably benefit from it.
Funny how that works out.
If this team is to go anywhere in the NCAA Tournament—and as the author of this piece, I'm inclined to believe that they will—then there will have to be a whole lot of egos checked at the door, a lot of self-sacrificing to exhibit, a lot of following instructions without hesitation.
And Tubby Smith knows it's one helluva lot easier to get those things when you prove to your players that you care about their goals and dreams.
That's why he left K.J. in the game and subbed Dedric back into a contest that was over after the first six minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed.
Tubby Smith is a player's coach in every sense of the term. That's why he's won everywhere he's gone. That's why he's going to win here at Memphis.
And his players are going to both love and respect him every step of the way.