When you're the athletic director at a school where each spring
the basketball coach gets offered humorously large sums of money
by desperate NBA teams, it's not a bad idea to maintain a list
of potential replacements. Kentucky's C.M. Newton always had
such a list, and Orlando (Tubby) Smith was always on it. Last
March--just before Rick Pitino left the Wildcats for the Boston
Celtics and just after Smith had guided Georgia to its only
back-to-back 20-win seasons--Smith vaulted to the top of that
list. He did so not with a win but with a loss.
There's much to be read into that last detail. Wins are ho-hum
at Kentucky. It's the losses, blue-moon rare, that touch off
red-assed recriminations, and that's why Newton was so impressed
by Smith's comportment after the Bulldogs lost 73-70 to lightly
regarded Tennessee-Chattanooga in the first round of last year's
NCAA tournament. "To see the way he handled it, with his players
and with the media, I thought, This guy has toughness," says
Newton, who witnessed the upset in Charlotte as a member of the
NCAA basketball committee. "It sold me on his ability to do this
job. Because in the minds of our people, every loss is like
losing to Tennessee-Chattanooga."
Ah, but say Kentucky were to lose to Louisville--unranked, 3-6
Louisville--and say it were to do so beneath the banner-bedecked
beams of Rupp Arena. That would be like losing to Transylvania.
On Dec. 27 Smith's Wildcats did just that, going down 79-76 in a
hail of Cardinal three-pointers. In the aftermath
radio-talk-show consoles in the commonwealth lit up like
Christmas trees. One caller laid the loss at Smith's decision to
give his players 36 hours off over the holiday, the implication
being that his predecessor would have Grinched the Cats to
victory. Others complained that Smith wasn't animated enough,
wasn't vocal enough, wasn't playing 6'10" junior center Nazr
Mohammed enough, wasn't pressing enough. There was not, however,
the slightest whiff of a hint of a suggestion that the coach
wasn't white enough.
Only days before Smith took the job at Kentucky last May,
Merlene Davis, a black columnist for the Lexington
Herald-Leader, beseeched him not to do so. If he did, she wrote,
"I sincerely fear for your safety and the safety of your
family.... Kentucky fans aren't ready for a black head coach....
The first time you lose a game, you will not be called a stupid
coach. You will be called a stupid black coach."
Smith, 46, didn't hesitate to come to Lexington, declaring on
the day he was hired that "it has always been a dream of mine to
be the coach here." Yet he believes Davis's column wasn't a bad
thing, for it aired an issue that, given Kentucky's tardiness in
integrating its basketball team under legendary coach Adolph
Rupp--the Wildcats didn't have a black player until the 1971-72
season--would have been in play anyway. "It was like a
challenge," Smith says. "As if she were saying to people: Prove
me wrong. And I haven't had one racial comment, one racial slant
to a letter. Not that it's not out there or might not happen.
But I think there's a lot I can do in the way I carry myself. So
people might say, 'That Tubby Smith, he's just like Joe Smith,
the black guy I know who lives in town.'"
It helps Smith that much is made of land and kin in Kentucky.
Having been raised rural, Methodist and in the hurly-burly of a
family with 16 siblings, Smith, black though he may be, is less
of an alien than the departed white coach, an Italian-American
New Yorker who grew up essentially alone. "I don't know if my
background has helped the fans connect with me," Smith says,
"but it has helped me connect with them."
To articulate his preference for homegrown boys from the state's
small towns, Rupp liked to quote Scripture: I turn my eyes to
the hills, whence cometh my help. With Pitino's departure,
Newton turned to someone from the low-country town of Scotland,
Md., a farming community on a spit of land laved on either side
by the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, only a few miles shy of
where Point Lookout commands Chesapeake Bay. There, come
Saturday evenings, Guffrie and Parthenia Smith used a galvanized
steel utility tub to bathe their children. Orlando, sixth born,
got his nickname for his reluctance to vacate the tub even when
his ablutions were done.
Parthenia, whose maternal grandfather was a full-blooded
Cherokee, squeezed her brood of 17 into 25 years. (Tubby's
siblings include Marva, Zerita, Beulah and Odell. When your
surname is as pedestrian as Smith, you've got to make up for it
on the front end.) Since winning a Purple Heart as a machine
gunner in Italy during World War II, Guffrie has farmed his own
land and, at various times, managed that of a neighbor; sold
firewood; cut hair; driven a school bus; worked construction;
run the boiler room at the Patuxent Naval Air Station in St.
Mary's; and become a world-class barterer--to make ends meet, to
be sure, but also, he'll acknowledge with a laugh, because with
that many kids around he just wanted to get out of the house.
Guffrie's son Tubby is one of the few coaches who would find a
basketball team to be a smaller assemblage than the family in
which he grew up. From infancy, he learned organization and
cooperation, virtues essential to a well-run team.
Until the 10th grade Tubby attended all-black schools and played
recreational league football, basketball and baseball. He then
starred at guard the next three years at freshly integrated
Great Mills High, helping the student body come together over
basketball success. After a solid career (14.9 points, 5.0
rebounds per game) at High Point (N.C.) College and head
coaching jobs at Great Mills High and Hoke County High in
Raeford, N.C., he hooked on as an assistant at Virginia
Commonwealth in 1979. Including that seven-year hitch, similar
assistantships at South Carolina (three seasons) and Kentucky
(two under Pitino), and head coaching stops at Tulsa (four
seasons), Georgia (two) and now Kentucky, Smith has held six
college jobs and never applied for any of them.
He has been in demand as much because of his style as his
success (124-62 career record coming into this season). After a
71-62 defeat of Vanderbilt in Rupp Arena on Jan. 3, Smith had
just finished his postgame radio show courtside when a matronly
fan approached him for an autograph. Smith obliged her.
"Tubby," she said, taking her leave, "thanks a lot! Good to see
"Good to see you!" he called back as she made her way up an
aisle. "Be careful driving home now!"
Only on the court will Smith wear a sort of benign scowl and
evince a temperament that Newton describes as that of "an
impatient patient man." While Pitino never slackened in
intensity, Smith turns his on and off. "He'll go from the
calmest person in the world to the most irate," says senior
guard Cameron Mills. "After the Louisville game he didn't know
what to say to us, he was so mad. He went from completely
screaming to being on his knees with his eyes closed, leading us
in the Lord's Prayer. I was looking around the locker room
wondering, What just happened?"
"Coach Pitino was more a playing-basketball coach," adds senior
guard Allen Edwards. "Not that he didn't care about us. But
Coach Smith seems to care about our academic, social and
religious lives a lot more."
Newton was aware of the differences when he pursued Smith. "Rick
is so charismatic that he attracts an almost cultlike following,
so a successor anything like him would have been at a distinct
disadvantage," he says. "We wanted someone with such a different
personality that people wouldn't make comparisons. Tubby fits
perfectly. The only comparisons you hear are basketball
In fact, Davis's caveat notwithstanding, Kentuckians seem to
want to embrace Smith. In the wake of the loss to the Cardinals,
the Herald-Leader printed a list of Pitino's 10 biggest defeats.
One fan called the newspaper with thanks for reminding readers
that, for all his victories, Pitino lost a few, too.
Since the defeat at the hands of Louisville, normalcy has
returned to the Wildcats. Kentucky outrebounded the Commodores
by 39 in defeating Vandy; won 90-79 at Georgia on Jan. 6 in
Smith's first return to Athens; and last Saturday got a
magnificent all-court game from gangly junior forward Scott
Padgett in defeating Mississippi State 77-71 in Starkville.
Perhaps those caviling callers deserve credit for Smith's
starting Mohammed after the loss to Louisville, and for Smith's
shedding his suit coat sooner and screaming louder following the
opening tip. But Smith has hardly needed to take a cue from the
talk shows to suspend the remorseless full-court press that
characterized the Wildcats' drives to berths in the last two
NCAA title games and the '96 national championship. Instead,
with a thinner team, Smith is using a less adventuresome
"ball-line" defense, a straight-up half-court man-to-man that
Smith picked up while an assistant under J.D. Barnett, who
coached Virginia Commonwealth from 1979 to '85. And before the
Vanderbilt game he banned all facial hair, something Pitino
never did. "I thought it would forge a bond," he says. "Give
them something visual to get together over, maybe even blame me
for: 'That coach Smith....'"
Against Georgia, Tubby and his son Saul, a freshman reserve
guard for Kentucky, experienced some disorienting moments as
they faced Tubby's oldest son, G.G., who has remained with the
Dawgs for his junior season. After G.G. knocked down a
three-pointer in the first half, Tubby scowled and pumped his
fist, leaving observers hard-pressed to tell whether he was
cross at his team for leaving a shooter wide open or for
disrespecting his boy. When Saul was called for fouling G.G. on
a drive, Saul gestured at the official that he felt G.G. had
warded him off with a chicken wing. Meanwhile their mom, Donna,
clad shrewdly in a multicolored sweater, applauded
indiscriminately. The week's events left the Kentucky Smiths
emotionally exhausted, but their team was 14-2 and ranked No. 6
in the nation--a remarkable station given the Wildcats' loss of
six NBA draft picks in the last two years and the gantlet of
tests in November and December when Kentucky played Arizona,
Clemson, Purdue and Indiana away from home.
While the Wildcats aren't a dominating team, they do have a
potentially dominant player in Mohammed, whose first name, Nazr,
is pronounced NAH-zy. Born in Chicago to Ghanaian immigrants, he
has shed 75 pounds since he arrived as a 315-pound freshman so
elephantine that, in the words of Indiana coach Bob Knight, "he
should have had Punjab riding him."
What Kentucky lacks is an undisputed leader--a "bell cow," in
Newton's phrase. By the end of the season Muhammed may well be
just that. (Better a cow than an elephant.) Georgia coach Ron
Jirsa laughs at the second-guessers who claim that the Wildcats
aren't scoring enough three-pointers. "When you have the best
center in the SEC," Jirsa says, "it would only be smart to get
the ball into him a few times."
Mohammed is also a pretty good example of the applicability of
farm philosophy to coaching. "It takes patience not to give up
on players, to wait for them to grow," Smith says. "It's like a
crop. You weed it properly, and hoe it, and nurture and
Before the season Tubby and Donna took their three boys--the
youngest, Brian, is a 5'6" seventh-grader in Lexington and
possibly the best player of the lot--to Maryland, to the family
homestead, for a reunion attended by several hundred people.
There one of Tubby's sons espied the eponymous tub. "I think it
had apples in it," Saul says.
A reminder that, eventually, comes harvesttime.