Kentucky had just lost at home to archrival Louisville last December, and now it was time for the inevitable critique from some of the most discerning basketball fans in America.
All circuits were busy. Telephone lines to radio talk shows were overloaded throughout the state. The new coach, Tubby Smith, was blamed for strategy, for substitutions he did or didn’t make, for giving his players time off during the Christmas holiday.
And that, in a sense, was a welcome reaction. Because no one suggested that Tubby Smith messed up because he is African-American.
To many, it was a sociological bench mark when Smith, 46, was hired last spring to replace Rick Pitino, who had just become coach of the Boston Celtics. Smith, after all, was leaving Georgia to take over a program once lorded over by Adolph Rupp, who refused to recruit a black player until the 1971-72 season, the last of his 41 years as coach.
Rupp was coach when the Wildcats lost the 1966 NCAA championship game to Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso), the first team with five black starters to win the national title. The arena Kentucky plays in is named for Rupp.
Was Kentucky ready for a black coach 21 years later? Would it ever be? Merlene Davis, a black columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, warned Smith not to take the job, writing: “I sincerely fear for your safety and the safety of your family. … The first time you lose a game, you will not be called a stupid coach. You will be called a stupid black coach.”
But the man who hired Smith, athletic director C.M. Newton, said he was colorblind. Newton wanted the coach who apprenticed as an assistant under Pitino before leading Tulsa twice to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and taking Georgia there once, all within three years.
“He was always at the top of my list,” said Newton, a former head coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt. “I didn’t even think about that (race). I wanted to get the right basketball coach. I didn’t care if he was green.”
Newton was proven correct. Kentucky, ranked No. 8 in preseason, arrives at the Final Four this week with a 33-4 record. The No. 2 seed in the South Regional, Kentucky beat No. 1 Duke in the championship game. Afterward, fans screamed “Tubby, Tubby,” as the Wildcats celebrated.
Sure, it’s easy to love him now, but Smith said fans did not treat him differently than they would another coach when the Wildcats stumbled for a brief period, losing three games at home.
“The people were very good to me,” Smith said. “The way they responded to the coaching change was nice.”
Davis, a 47-year-old Kentucky alum, is still skeptical, though.
“When Pitino lost to Louisville, they blamed it on the players. When Tubby lost, they were ready to hang him,” said Davis, who said she is not a big basketball fan but attends Kentucky games with her family. “You don’t have to say it’s race. Racism is a very covert thing.”
But Newton said, “They always blame the coach when we lose, including Rick.”
Newton said he was “totally surprised and shocked,” when Davis wrote her column advising Smith not to accept the position.
“I would have expected that when I integrated Alabama in 1968,” Newton said.
Davis remains firm in her opinion.
“I am truly mystified that people are expecting Tubby Smith, hired to win basketball games, to bridge a racial gap, cure all the ills,” Davis said. “People expect some miracle.”
There are people in Kentucky, black and white, who believe Smith is a better fit than Pitino, who in 1996 brought the school its first national title in 18 years.
While Pitino is a glib, urban guy from New York City, Orlando Smith was raised on a farm in rural Maryland, the sixth of 17 children in his family. (His nickname is the result of Smith’s reluctance to leave the family’s bathtub when his turn was up.)
But Newton thought Pitino was great for Kentucky during his eight seasons there, inheriting a program on NCAA probation and building a national championship.
“Rick was a perfect fit,” Newton said. “And now Tubby has willed himself on the team. He has created a great family atmosphere.”
Newton said Pitino was so popular it would have been unwise to hire someone with a similar personality.
“Rick was so charismatic, such a master teacher. I didn’t want someone who would draw comparisons,” Newton said. “I did want someone who played a similar style of basketball - pressure defense, explosive offense. Tubby has done a remarkable job, particularly under the circumstances.”
Point guard Wayne Turner discovered similarities and differences between the coaches.
“They both have the same desire, both coach with a lot of intensity,” he said. “But Coach Smith is around a lot more. He tries to fit in. You didn’t see as much of Coach Pitino.”
Smith was criticized by fans early in the season for not pressing as much as Pitino, but he felt the Wildcats were not ready.
“I think Tubby wanted to use his big players more, so he had to be willing not to press as much,” Newton said. “And he recognized that maybe he didn’t have the quickness you need to press all the time. We’re very sound. We don’t create the mayhem that Rick’s teams did.”
Kentucky has won 11 straight games, and Smith was recently named national coach of the year by Basketball Weekly.