Kentucky's new favorite son via Md.

March 30, 1998|By John Eisenberg

SAN ANTONIO -- It all started on a school bus motoring through the southern Maryland countryside on the way to Baltimore, where Tubby Smith would come to cheer for the Bullets and Orioles when he was a kid living in St. Mary's County back in the '50s and '60s.

"Those trips were what got me interested in sports in the first place," Smith recalled yesterday.

His father, Guffrie, owned the bus and organized trips to earn extra cash over the summer and on weekends.

"He was being an entrepreneur," Smith said, "and having 17 kids, he needed to be."

The journey that began with those bus trips has carried Smith, now 46, to places that were unthinkable in those days for an African-American.

As the first-year coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, once one of the nation's foremost symbols of segregation, he will try to win college basketball's national championship tonight against Utah.

That's a long way from Scotland, a small farming community near the mouth of the Potomac River, where Smith grew up working in tobacco and tomato fields and playing at Point Lookout, on the site of a jail for Confederate prisoners during the Civil War.

The sixth-oldest of 17 children -- his father worked numerous jobs to make ends meet, from farming to running the boiler room at Patuxent Naval Air Station -- he went to church on Sunday, studied hard, starred in the backcourt at newly integrated Great Mill High School in the late '60s and cheered for the Maryland Terrapins because they had the ACC's first black player, Billy Jones.

"Maryland became kind of a model for [minorities], that we could make it," Smith said.

He certainly wasn't cheering for Kentucky when it put an all-white team on the floor at Cole Field House in the 1966 national championship game against all-black Texas Western.

"In those days, I would venture to say that most blacks had a real problem [with Kentucky]," Smith said. "Those were the days of the civil rights movement. I was young myself."

He said he signed to play for Maryland, but there was a coaching change and Lefty Driesell was brought in, and Smith wound up at High Point College in North Carolina.

"Lefty was going to do his own recruiting," Smith said with a smile. "But I just wasn't good enough, let's face it."

After college, he coached at two high schools in North Carolina before becoming an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth in 1979. He was later an assistant at South Carolina and Kentucky and a head coach at Tulsa and Georgia before coming to Kentucky.

"Growing up as I did taught me that you had to work in a garden every day to get something to grow," he said. "It didn't just happen."

Those and other lessons from his childhood are stamped all over the Kentucky team he inherited from Rick Pitino, who left after last season to become the coach of the Boston Celtics.

The Wildcats are basketball royalty, but it's no coincidence that this year's team has Smith's humble, selfless character. The roster is full of high school All-Americans, but high scorer Jeff Sheppard averages just 13.6 points, and only two other players average in double figures.

"My dad always told us that when you take on a job, just do what you're supposed to do," Smith said. "When you try to do more, you end up not finishing your part. We have applied that lesson to the team. No one is doing more than they should. You can have all sorts of trouble as a result of egos, but we don't have any ego problems."

Smith doesn't, that's for sure. Granted, it takes a strong self-image and a certain amount of brashness to become a successful college coach, much less the first African-American coach of a program once renowned as an all-white bastion. But it's hard to develop a big ego when you have 16 brothers and sisters.

That background has made it easy for Kentucky fans to accept him. One Lexington columnist wrote that the fans would call him a "stupid black coach" if he lost, but it turns out they see him as one of their own more than the lordly Pitino, a New Yorker who always left the impression that he felt he was doing Kentuckians a favor by coaching the Wildcats. Rural, religious and self-effacing, Smith is a much better personality match.

"I said all along that I just wanted to be judged by the content of my character, not the color of my skin," Smith said. "That's what [the fans] have done. It's been good to be accepted without any negatives. I guess the people have accepted that maybe this guy knows what he's doing a little bit."

His players certainly love playing for him after the intense Pitino.

"He does a great job of teaching basketball," Sheppard said yesterday, "but he does a better job of teaching us to be men. We're here because of the sense of family he has instilled."

Getting to the championship game in his first season certainly won't hurt his popularity back home. Asked about that after the Wildcats' victory over Stanford in Saturday's semifinals, Smith didn't try to deflect the attention or downplay the significance. It meant a lot, he said. He was thrilled to come through in a season of unrelenting scrutiny.

Thirty-two years ago, he rooted against Kentucky in the championship game for reasons that went beyond a teen-ager's usual sporting whims.

Now, incredibly, he is the symbol of Kentucky basketball.

"It's amazing for me to be sitting here in this position," Smith said, "and to know that these opportunities may not always have been available [to minorities], but they are now. If you're willing to work hard and make sacrifices, it's available."

Some journey, indeed.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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