Scores of Gopher faithful came to Williams Arena Friday afternoon -- cheering and chanting and singing the school fight song.
But it wasn't a basketball game. The Gophers won't hit the court for several months yet. They came to cheer the arrival of new head coach Tubby Smith.
"I feel the love already," said Smith to loud cheers. "It's an honor. It's a real privilege to join the Minnesota Gopher family. I couldn't be more excited."
"In your life, you're going to have moments that are a gift. For me to be here today is truly a gift. It's a blessing," said Smith. "We feel this is an opportunity for new energy, new life, and has inspired new enthusiasm for my family."
Smith is a big name basketball coach with a history of winning basketball games. In his 15 years as a head coach for Tulsa, Georgia and the University of Kentucky, Smith has never had a losing season. And in so many words, Smith told Gopher fans they can expect similar results in Minnesota.
"We'll do things the right way here. We're going to earn your respect," said Smith. "Our teams will play a brand of basketball that's exciting, fun and winning. Cause, it doesn't do you any good if don't win."
Smith also promised that he will continue his work with social groups that help women, youth and the poor. He and his wife, Donna, support groups like the Urban League and Crysalis.
Smith has also established a program for at-risk middle-school kids in Kentucky called Tubby's Clubhouses, and says he hopes to establish a version of the program here.
“It's an honor. It's a real privilege to join the Minnesota Gopher family. I feel the love already.”Tubby Smith
Smith says helping others was a value that he was taught as a young man growing up on a farm in southern Maryland, with 16 other siblings.
"I learned that you have to share and give. When you grow up in a family of 17, you do need to learn to help others," Smith said. "Once you get to a certain point in life, you want to -- it's what you leave behind. It's what you've done with your time ... and that's what I believe in."
The hiring of Tubby Smith is being characterized by other coaches and sports commentators around the country as a coup for the university.
U of M Athletics Director Joel Maturi says he'd worked on getting Smith to the U since December, when he first learned the coach was interested in leaving Kentucky.
"Minnesotans will love him because of his values and his integrity. They will respect him for his successes, on and off the court. We will embrace him as a Gopher," Maturi said.
Maturi says Smith's hire is a statement "of our committment to basketball at the University of Minnesota. To our student athletes. To the prospects out there. To the high school and AAU coaches. To our fans and to all the fans of college basketball nationwide."
"This was a statement hire, no doubt about it," says Paul Miller, who has been a student season ticket-holder for five years. He says lately, he's suffered through a lot of lousy basketball. Miller says Smith's contract, for about $1.7 million a year -- even more with performance incentives -- is worth it.
"I think it is. Because, based on what I've seen from [U of M] President Bruininks in press conferences and previous appearances, I think he really wants good things for this athletic program," said Miller.
At Kentucky, Smith faced tremendous pressure even though he took the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament in each of his 10 years. But the team hadn't reached the Final Four since his first year as coach there, and they lost in the second round this year. Some Kentucky fans were beginning to call for his ouster.
Smith won't face near the pressure here at Minnesota, where Gopher fans just want to see their team competitive in the Big Ten.
The next Gopher basketball season doesn't start until fall. However, Tubby Smith's arrival is already having an impact. The university has reported a spike in season ticket sales since news of Smith's hiring became known just a day earlier.