He looked at the adoring faithful of his new school and beamed.
"This is what it's all about," Smith said Friday after being introduced as the new coach at Minnesota. "I feel the love already."
It was quite a change for Smith, dogged by criticism from Kentucky's notoriously demanding "Big Blue Nation." Wildcats fans dubbed him "10-loss Tubby" and clogged Internet chat rooms and talk radio shows with complaints about a coach who won a national championship, five Southeastern Conference titles, five SEC tournament titles and 76 percent of his games at Kentucky.
From the moment he stepped on stage decked out in a gray pinstripe suit and Gopher tie, it was clear just how different things will be in Minnesota.
"No matter how much he won at Kentucky, he's never going to catch Adolph Rupp," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said. "He can actually build a program here and develop a legacy here that I don't think he could do at any of his other stops."
Smith came to Kentucky from Georgia in 1997 to replace a legend. Rick Pitino had guided the Wildcats to two straight appearances in the championship game before leaving to coach the Boston Celtics. Despite one title and three appearances in the regional finals, Wildcats fans were growing restless even before Kentucky lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Kansas last weekend.
There is no such pressure at Minnesota.
Smith inherits a team that went 9-22 last season and 3-13 in the Big Ten. The Gophers were overmatched nearly every time they took the floor, driving their once vocal fan base away in droves.
So Maturi set out to find a big-name coach who would sell season tickets and energize lethargic fans. He shelled out $1.75 million a year for seven years to lure Smith away from Kentucky, and Smith acknowledged Friday he was ready for a change of scenery after 10 years in Lexington.
"I think the people closest to him were more upset with the criticism than Tubby was," Maturi said. "That's not going to happen here in Minnesota. We're going to be ecstatic when we go to the tournament again.
"I think today you saw a smile on Tubby's face that you probably haven't seen in a while."
Smith downplayed those vocal fans' role in his departure, saying that was "blown out of proportion," and spoke glowingly about his time in Kentucky, even thanking athletic director Mitch Barnhart in his opening statement.
"I didn't spend a lot of time listening to (the criticism)," Smith said. "I was too busy trying to win games. We're not running from anything. We're running to a great program."
The crowd erupted again after that statement, and it's clear Maturi's quest to find a galvanizing force to lead this woebegone program is off to a smashing start. Less than two hours after Thursday's announcement, more than 250 season ticket orders were filled.
Center Spencer Tollackson marveled at the amount of fans and student supporters in the stands at Williams Arena for the press conference. "We were driving here from class, and people were walking down University Avenue in Gopher basketball shirts," Tollackson said. "That's just not normal around here right now. We walked in here, and this place was going crazy. We're just really excited. We can't wait to get going with Coach Smith." Smith has plenty of work to do. His predecessor, Dan Monson, struggled mightily in recruiting and never was able to lift the program out of a hole dug by a massive academic fraud scandal under Clem Haskins. "We're going to develop a championship program here," Smith said. "It's not going to be easy." The 55-year-old farmer's son, who grew up with 16 siblings, knows plenty about hard work. He rebuilt Tulsa and Georgia. And he's won more NCAA tournament games and made more appearances in the round of 16 and the final eight than the Gophers have in their 111-year history. "We needed a jumpstart," Maturi said. "Let's be honest here. There's no gamble with Tubby Smith. If we don't win with Tubby Smith, then we have to look internally at our program and what we're doing or not doing. If we don't win, it's not because of the coach." In the end, Smith said, he didn't leave Kentucky because of the high expectations or the vocal critics. It turns out that he needed a jumpstart, too. "Leaving Kentucky for here, for me, is just a new challenge," Smith said. "It brings some renewed energy and life. I need it. I know Minnesota needs it. So we're going to feed off each other."