Sweet Redemption For Kentucky's Smith
March 19, 2003
By STEVE WILSTEIN
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - All around the city there are piles of broken branches from winter's last brutal ice storm. The rolling bluegrass pastures in the horse country are pale green, weeks away from their spring luster. There are mares in foal, colts just born, and a run for the roses coming up.
It is the time between seasons, a time when the world here stops and only one thing matters: the Cats.
From the days of Adolph Rupp to this year of sweet redemption for Tubby Smith, March has meant the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA tournament.
They're in their 44th tournament - their 12th straight, starting Friday in Nashville against tourney newcomer IUPUI - and they've won it seven times. They've spoiled their fans silly.
Bewigged and beaded in blue, Kentucky fans turned the Superdome into Rupp Arena South at last weekend's Southeastern Conference tournament, and they planned on going back for more of the same raucous good time at the Final Four in April.
If some in Blue Nation came to New Orleans still suspicious of Smith, they left by joining the growing chants of "Tub-bee, Tub-bee."
In a scandal-stained season for college basketball at schools as diverse as Georgia, St. Bonaventure and Villanova, Smith is a shoo-in for national coach of the year.
The Cats' No. 1 ranking, a 29-3 record, 23 straight victories and a sweep through the powerful Southeastern Conference are credentials enough for a coach whose team was picked to finish third in the SEC East.
But Smith has added something else: dignity to a profession that can use all it can find.
A thick wood shepherd's staff, taller than Smith, stands in a corner behind his desk. A gift from Cameron Mills, one of the captains on Smith's 1998 national champions in his first season as Kentucky's head coach, it is a symbol of the challenges Smith has faced on perhaps the nation's most fervent basketball campus.
God still ranks above the game here, but church services start earlier and sermons are shorter when the Cats play Sunday afternoons.
"When sheep are caught between the rocks and the brush," Smith says, "the shepherd hooks the crook around their neck to pull them out. He also uses the staff to beat off wolves who attack the flock and to lean on when he's tired.
"I keep it to remind me of what my responsibilities are to my players, to protect them and keep them out of harm's way."
Smith has tried to rescue more than a few wayward players, succeeding with some, losing others, while fighting off all the wolfish critics who have attacked him and them since he took over for Rick Pitino six years ago. He's played by the rules, come down hard on his players when they broke them, and proved he could win with the players he inherited and those he recruited.
"It's a shame that the only people who weren't able to appreciate Tubby were in the state of Kentucky," says two-time All-American Jack "Goose" Givens, who played for the Cats from 1975-78, was the MVP of the '78 Final Four, and now is TV analyst for the Orlando Magic. "They finally realize how good a coach he is and it may be too late. NBA teams are going to be coming at him hard and throwing around some pretty good numbers."
Smith couldn't win for winning until this season. Some Kentucky fans never forgave him for not being Pitino, for not running an offense like Pitino's or getting recruits like him.
The 1998 championship team - that was Pitino's players, critics carped. Never mind that it might actually be tougher to win with players recruited by another coach.
Three straight years with double-digit losses - Pitino never had that, fans grumbled. Forget that the Wildcats averaged 23 victories those seasons, despite injuries and suspensions.
This year's 81-63 loss to Pitino's Louisville Cardinals - that got them howling.
Now Smith has redeemed himself, doing it on his own terms with speed and depth on a team that has no star.
"Coach is an old-fashioned type of guy, so the key to our game is old-fashioned, hard-nosed defense," says Keith Bogans, a senior guard who stopped showing off for NBA scouts and bought into the concept of sacrificing his offense for the sake of the team.
It is a team whose strength is its coaching, the soft-spoken but firm leadership of a man who dresses like an ambassador and holds himself and his players to a high standard.
"I always liked Pitino, but you have to admire what Tubby has done and the morals he's shown, not putting up with any nonsense from the players," says one fan, 48-year-old Lexington native Britt Brewer, who still bleeds blue though he now lives in Duke country, Durham, N.C.
"When his starting guard doesn't show up for practice on time, he doesn't look the other way and play him. He sits the player down. It might cost us a game or some points in a game, but it suits the kids for moving on past basketball. There's a lot of people who didn't like Tubby because of the color of his skin. But people have to look past all that. Tubby is an upstanding person and a great coach."
Smith says he filters out the racial undertones of some of the criticism and takes pride in being the first black coach at a school that once epitomized segregation under Rupp. Smith was 14 when he watched Rupp's all-white team lose in the 1966 NCAA championship game against Texas Western's five black starters.
"Boy, that made an impression on me," he says.
"I've been part of the changes and I've watched them happen. Growing up in the '60s you could see a revolution - the civil rights movement, the sit-ins. Now being in this position, you're thankful for what those people did. You're able to be the head coach at a Kentucky."
There are lessons of the court and lessons of life, and those that the graying, 51-year-old Orlando "Tubby" Smith teaches were shaped by his childhood on a small farm in tiny Scotland, Md., near where the Potomac and the Patuxent rivers empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Farm life and a large family taught him to be patient, disciplined and unselfish, to pitch in and finish every job.
He was the sixth of Guffrie and Parthenia Smith's 17 children, none of them twins, growing up in a cinderblock home that had no indoor plumbing.
The Smiths sharecropped, picking tomatoes, cotton, corn, working the tobacco fields. Tubby got his nickname, in part, because he loved to stay in the big galvanized tub used for Saturday night baths, keeping warm up against the wood-burning stove in the living room.
"I think my mom gave me that name, and the kids would say it, 'Get out of that tub, Tubby,"' he says. "But I've got to come clean with that story - hey, that's a good little pun. I was a bit chubby as a kid. Truth be told, it was a combination of both.
"I tried to get rid of that name a number of times. Very few people want to be called Tubby. And I don't look Tubby."
The last person who called him Orlando, he says, was a 10th grade teacher who wouldn't tolerate nicknames.
As the second son, 10 years younger than his brother Guffrie Jr., Tubby learned to drive a tractor before he was 9 and took over many of the responsibilities of running the farm - cutting wood and hauling it in the winter, feeding the hogs and chickens, milking the cow before sunup. His father, now 83, and his mother, 79, made no allowances for skipping chores or school.
"You couldn't miss anything on a farm," Smith says. "You miss drawing water, you're not going to drink or bathe. You miss cutting the wood, you're not going to have heat or you're not going to eat. You miss feeding those chickens or hogs, they'll suffer."
Doing the work the right way each day, sticking with it, Smith believes, is the key to success in any endeavor.
"I talk about this with our team," he says. "People want that quick fix. Can we bypass this drill and just play? No. That's my dad's whole philosophy: All you have to do is last.
"Longevity and patience are everything. If you've got a horse in foal, you've got to wait the season out before you reap the benefits. Then you've got a year or two before it matures. This was the year for our players to mature. Sometimes you can't rush them. Trouble is, a lot of our fans don't want to wait."
Patience has been Smith's strength in his 30 years as a coach, with his players and with himself as he waited for the right jobs to come along. He's been a winner everywhere he has worked, in high schools and as head coach at Tulsa for four years and Georgia for two before Kentucky.
At times, though, his patience, combined with his compassion, hasn't been enough.
"He thinks that he can save every damn kid out there," said his wife of 27 years, Donna, sitting in the stands at the SEC tournament. Two of the blue-polished nails on her right hand read "Coach Of" and "The Year," and another bore his image transferred from a newspaper photo.
"Lately he's come to grips with the idea that he can try to help a kid, but maybe somebody else can help more. Maybe that player isn't a perfect fit for his program. It took him a long time to figure that out. He would give a kid chance after chance after chance."
Smith admits as much, saying he learned his limits over the past year as five players quit or were sent packing. Yet Smith's faith in others was rewarded.
"I look at him as a father," said Jules Camara, the 6-foot-11 senior from Senegal who sat out the 2000-01 season after a drunken-driving arrest. "Coach taught me to deal with adversity. I was going to leave Kentucky, but he said, 'Don't run away from your problems. Stand and face them and deal with the issues and move on in life.'
"He don't cut slack for nobody. If you make a mistake you're going to pay for it. If you do well, you're going to get a pat on the back."
That's exactly how Smith handled "an incident" with starting guard Gerald Fitch last week when he benched him for the start of the opening game of the SEC tournament.
Smith had suspended Fitch, and sat him down on other occasions last year and considered not bringing him back. But this was a player Smith didn't want to give up on, a kid who had a tougher time than most growing up and whose older brother and father figure, George, was shot and killed in 1998.
"I owe my life to Coach Smith," says Fitch, who returned this season more mature off the court and more effective on it. "I've messed up a few times, but Coach sets you straight and you don't want to disappoint him."
Smith says his job is to keep his players humble, to send the message that they're not indestructible and that they have to fit in with the rest of the team.
"Tubby has a gift," says Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas coach. "That gift is to communicate with a kid, to make a kid compete at his peak level. He takes guys who may not be as talented and gets everything out of them.
"Tubby is a tiger when he's coaching his kids. Off the court, he's a very kind, gentle person. But when he goes to work, he's intense, kind of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde."
Smith has mostly let the incessant criticism the past few years roll off him, ignoring the talk shows and the calls for his job. Nor has he let himself get too high when he hears fans chanting his name.
"Whether they're praising you or ripping you, you just can't buy into it," Smith says. "I tell the kids all the time, you're not as good as you think you are, and you're not as bad as you think you are. You're somewhere in between."