As much of a vacation destination as Brainerd is, there are people who still haven't visited the lakes area.
New University of Minnesota men's basketball coach Tubby Smith is one. He plans to rectify that June 12 when the Gophers Caravan stops at the Lodge at Brainerd Lakes.
"I'm looking forward to it," Smith said by phone. "I hope to play some golf."
Smith will be accompanied by head women's hockey coach Laura Halldorson, head women's volleyball coach Mike Hebert and men's track and field and cross country coordinator Roy Griak.
Smith was hired following a dismal 9-22 season during which Dan Monson was dismissed. Monson was replaced on an interim basis by Jim Molinari, who was not retained.
The 55-year-old Smith spent the last 10 seasons at Kentucky where he led the Wildcats to the 1998 NCAA championship. During his tenure, Kentucky made four Elite Eight appearances, won five Southeastern Conference titles, five SEC tournament titles and made the Sweet 16 six times.
Where: The Lodge at Brainerd Lakes, Highway 371 North
When: June 12, lunch at noon, program 12:30 to 1 p.m.
Ticket outlets: Bremer Bank outlets in Brainerd and Baxter, Legacy Golf Course, M-J's Sport Shop, Mar-Jons Sportswear, Triangle/Super America Store in Baxter
Ticket price: $15 includes lunch and a donation to Brainerd Youth Athletic Association
Smith believes his first Gopher team can be competitive with players like Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie returning.
"We're excited about the players we have returning, along with the freshmen they were able to sign before we got here," Smith said.
"It's always interesting when you're coming into a program and taking over," he added. "There's a new style, a new system, but players are players.
"Players play the game but teams have to come together to be championship caliber. To be champions you have to have the attitude about competing for the Big Ten championship. We expect to do that next year."
Smith said the response he and his staff has received has been favorable. He also praised Monson and Molinari for the job they did preceding him.
"It's been a tough situation over the years and they did an adequate job," Smith said. "I know that the interest level at Kentucky, anywhere, you're always promoting your program. It's not just basketball and football and athletics. The U' has a lot of great things going on. I think that's why there's so much excitement for men's basketball."
Monson's staff struggled mightily with in-state recruiting. Most big-time prospects left Minnesota. Smith said the reception to his recruiting efforts has also been favorable.
"Obviously, we have a good reputation in the business from being at Kentucky, Tulsa and Georgia,"
he said, "and we've been successful. We've developed contacts with coaches around the country. We've gotten exceptional response but recruiting is very competitive. It's probably the most competitive it's ever been at this level right now. You still have to convince young men and their families that this is the best place to get an education and play basketball and that this is a great area.
"It's a great thing to sell, and that will be the way we package it and brand it."
Smith said there are things that need to be upgraded but the key is recruiting.
"We have to get the best we can here," he said. "We've got quite a few Minnesota players on the team. We've got to make sure that we give opportunities to the best players in this region.
"We have some outstanding teams, players and coaches here. We need to continue to let people know that and find a way to get our teams to postseason play, which is where the emphasis is now."
Smith said the key to recruiting will be the staff he puts together. He has hired former Timberwolves assistant Vince Taylor, Ron Jirsa and Tubby's son, Saul Smith. One position needs to be filled.
"We're excited about the guys we have on board," Smith said. "It will be a big help to have Vince Taylor and we already have Ron and Saul. Those are key and critical hires. We have to embrace the fans and high school coaches in this region."
Mike Bialka, sports editor, may be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5861.
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