It's tough love for Ky.'s 'Tubby' Basketball: Wildcats and their fans have given Rick Pitino's successor the warmest of welcomes, but the warmth could fade fast if he doesn't win.

November 20, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As Tubby Smith walked across the floor at Rupp Arena after an exhibition game last week, he didn't notice the clot of older Kentucky basketball fans that had stayed to listen to the new coach's post-game radio show, broadcast over the public-address system.

He was lost in thought. Nearly in the tunnel leading from the court, Smith finally realized that their polite cheers were for him. He looked up, smiled warmly and stopped to sign some autographs, shake some hands and hear the same things over and over.

"We love you, Coach."

"We're behind you, Coach."

"They couldn't have picked a better coach, Coach."

It has been this way ever since Smith was hired, just two days after Rick Pitino announced he was leaving for the Boston Celtics last May. It was that way at the news conference to announce Smith's signing, the one that was carried live on television throughout the state in the middle of the afternoon.

It was that way at all the alumni functions and civic events Smith attended through the summer and fall. And it was that way at Midnight Madness, when Smith was introduced to the loudest ovation of all. It will continue to be that way, on one condition: Kentucky keeps winning.

"You can only be welcomed for so long," said Smith, who will be paid a reported $1.2 million a year for five years. "Then you have to settle down and get the job done. It's like moving into a new neighborhood and everybody at first is bringing you cookies. Eventually, they stop."

If the first six months have been the proverbial honeymoon for the 46-year-old coach, the real marriage begins tonight when Kentucky opens its 1997-98 season against Morehead State (coached by former Wildcats star and color analyst Kyle Macy).

They take their vows seriously around here, and have since Adolph Rupp came to town in 1930 -- in sickness and in health, for better (six national championships, four under Rupp and, most recently, under Pitino in 1996) or for worse (two NCAA probations, one that closed the program down in 1950 and, most recently, under Eddie Sutton in 1989), till death do they part.

"When I was here with Rick, I didn't understand or appreciate how hard he had to work," said Smith, an assistant and later an associate head coach during Pitino's first two years before becoming the head coach at Tulsa in 1991.

"I was surprised at how up he was all the time. He was always under the microscope. But you can't be overwhelmed by it. You have to be prepared, organized and enthusiastic."

And thick-skinned. Joe Hall wasn't. Despite winning nearly 75 percent of his games and a national championship in the 13 years following Rupp's retirement in 1972, he was long known as Joe B. Gone.

Sutton wasn't. He was in charge from 1985 to 1989, four mostly tumultuous seasons that saw the program reach its lowest point since the 1950s betting scandal. Pitino wasn't all the time, either, but he managed to control the legions of Wildcats fans as if he were some Armani-suited puppeteer.

Now along comes Smith, probably the most approachable, down-to-earth, regular guy coach Kentucky has ever had. Though he left his rural roots in the Southern Maryland town of Scotland 28 years ago for High Point College in North Carolina, the sixth of Guffrie Sr. and Parthenia Smith's 17 children has a lot in common with the folks of this commonwealth.

"He's a very likable human being," said J.D. Barnett, who coached Smith at High Point, gave him his first college assistant's job at Virginia Commonwealth and, in a strange turn of events, was replaced by Smith at Tulsa. "Maybe because he had so many brothers and sisters, Tubby figured he had to get along with everybody."

One more thing needs to be mentioned: Smith is the first black coach at a program that was, under Rupp, considered racist. It was an image derived, fairly or unfairly, from perhaps the most significant game in the sport's modern history.

In 1966, an all-white Kentucky team lost to Texas-Western, which had the first all-black starting five, in the NCAA final at Maryland's Cole Field House. Rupp's image was sealed. It didn't matter that Rupp had a black player on an Illinois high school team in 1928, or that he had tried to recruit both Wes Unseld and Butch Beard out of Louisville a few years earlier.

"If Duke had beaten us in the semifinals," said Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton, who played for Rupp, "then they would have the label instead of us. It's all revisionist history."

Smith was the only person Newton interviewed to succeed Pitino. Despite being what Newton calls "a very popular choice", the issue of race has yet to go away. It was raised at the beginning by local columnists, including one who tried to dissuade Smith from taking the job before it was offered.

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