Wildcats coach Smith doesn't feel uneasy wearing the crown Tradition, pressure of Kentucky no burden for Maryland native

November 13, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Tubby Smith's left ankle was wrapped and elevated, the sprain a result of the pickup game that followed that morning's practice. The physical pain was a trifle compared with the nagging questions the Kentucky coach faced about some troublemakers on his team.

Yet he had the biggest smile on his face.

The Bluegrass State's favorite team had a turbulent off-season, but you couldn't tell that from talking to Smith. Two days ago, he signed the finest recruiting class in the land. Next week, Kentucky begins a season that could end with the Wildcats' fourth straight NCAA championship game.

What's not to like for the favorite son of Scotland, Md.?

"It's an awesome task, the responsibility that comes with coaching here," said Smith, who last year took the Wildcats to the NCAA title and 35 victories, the most ever for a first-year coach. "The biggest thing in college coaching is drawing attention, and most people are not successful because they've got to draw support, generate revenue. This job allows you to focus on coaching and teaching. That's the beauty of this position."

In business terms, Smith is backed by the resources of Microsoft and the name recognition of Coca-Cola.

From 1948 to 1951, the Wildcats won three of the four NCAA tournaments. A betting scandal tarnished the program, which was dirtied again 10 years ago, when Eddie Sutton's stay was ended by rules violations ranging from player payoffs to bogus test scores.

Kentucky critics howled again last spring and summer, when Smith was confronted by a series of incidents.

Guard Ryan Hogan was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Point guard Wayne Turner was on the hot seat over a hit-and-run accident involving his car until May, when sophomore forward Myron Anthony finally stepped forward and admitted he drove the car without Turner's knowledge.

In June, center Jamaal Magloire was a passenger in a car in which two others were arrested for possession of illegal drugs.

"The actions of those three guys affected the program throughout the spring and the whole summer," Turner said. "Those guys understand that even though we won the championship, it doesn't mean you can get away with whatever you want."

Smith didn't announce their four-game suspensions -- which included two exhibitions -- until two weeks ago.

"A lot of people wanted me to punish them when these incidents happened," Smith said. "What good is punishment in April or May or June, when what's most important to them is playing basketball?"

The nation's top high school seniors weren't scared off by the negative publicity. The recruiting class that Kentucky signed earlier this week is considered the nation's best, including De Matha guard Keith Bogans and Marvin Stone, 6 feet 10, of Huntsville, Ala.

It's the kind of recruiting class that made Kentucky so good in 1995-96, when Rick Pitino completed a reclamation job with the program's first NCAA championship since 1978. That title team had six NBA first-round draft picks, and when Pitino left to coach the Boston Celtics after a 1997 title game loss to Arizona, one player of that caliber was left.

Smith's Wildcats don't press or launch three-pointers at the pace Pitino's did, but they are just as relentless. Kentucky won 10 times last season when it trailed at the half, and its 10-point deficit to Utah was the biggest ever overcome in an NCAA final.

"When we evaluate a person, we ask can he handle the stress and pressure that comes with playing here?" Smith said. "The intangible, that never-give-up attitude, it's here from the day they get here. Our style of play lends itself to coming back. We don't look at the clock, we just tell them to play harder.

"My job is to take the pressure off, make them relax."

The public image of Smith is a bug-eyed glare that can intimidate, but it is seldom used off the court.

"He's the nicest guy in the world, as long as you're taking care of your schoolwork," senior forward Scott Padgett said. "As soon as you step on the court, it's all business. It's a good balance, because you can be comfortable around Coach Smith off the court. Whereas sometimes with Coach Pitino, you didn't know what to expect.

"Coach Pitino, some days he was in certain moods, you didn't want to be around him. On certain days, he was upset and, no matter what, he was going to take it out on somebody. You didn't want to be that somebody."

Smith assisted Pitino during 1989 to 1991, during Kentucky's climb from probation, but nobody confuses the two.

Pitino's New York accent was out of place here. Besides winning, he connected through the horse business.

His replacement, the sixth of 17 children raised by Guffrie and Parthenia Smith on a farm in St. Mary's County, seems a better fit.

"I don't know much about horses," Smith said. "I'm learning some things, but I had never been to Pimlico or Bowie or Laurel. We did race chickens and hogs with the 4-H Club, though. I had a couple of fast chickens."

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