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.
"It will be hard enough for a white coach to follow Pitino," Merlene Davis, who is black, wrote in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It will be an awesome responsibility for a black one I sincerely fear for your safety and the safety of your family if you agree to become head coach."
Davis, who declined to be interviewed for this story, later met with Smith and has since purchased season tickets at Rupp Arena for the first time. But C.G. Peeples, the executive director of the local Urban League, doesn't believe that Kentucky fans will be less patient with Smith than they were with Pitino strictly because of race. Nor does he believe they will they be less accepting of Smith as a head coach than they were of him as an assistant.
"He's been accepted well by everyone," said Peeples. "We had a reception for Tubby and Donna [Smith's wife] in July and there were 500 people in line for three hours waiting to shake his hand and say hello. I think it was a big deal for our community. I think it was big for the entire community. In our society today, being the first -- either in race or gender -- is still significant news. We're still growing as a country."
Smith has tried to defuse the race issue. He points out there are more than 50 black head coaches in Division I and that he isn't even the first at Kentucky. Bernadette Locke-Maddox, an assistant under Pitino for four years, now coaches the women's team here. "It's not like I'm a pioneer," said Smith.
Smith knows he will become the focal point of the fans' frustrations if the Wildcats struggle during an early-season schedule that includes four possible matchups against other top-10 teams in the first eight games. Last season, Kentucky lost to Arizona in the NCAA final and then lost Ron Mercer a year early to the NBA, as well as Derek Anderson and Anthony Epps.
And Smith knows that racism is just as much a part of society in Lexington as anywhere else.
"It's an element somewhere out there," he said. "Face it, there's bias everywhere you go."
Newton, a former basketball coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt, said that integrating a team in Tuscaloosa in 1969 was a lot more difficult, and dangerous, than hiring a black coach here nearly 30 years later. He didn't even flinch when he called Smith after Pitino's departure. But he did warn Smith about what he was getting into.
"The key thing is that he really wanted the job," said Newton. "I told him, 'You're going to make a lot of money and all the perks that come with it, but this job is a tough nut.' What excited me was that he really wanted to take this on. Whoever was going to be here, whether he was black or white or polka-dot, it was going to be tough following Rick. I also told him, 'This ain't Tulsa or Georgia.' "
And Smith, who had turned down a chance to go to Ohio State in March because he didn't want to uproot his family, knew it was time to move again. Aside from the success he had at Tulsa and Georgia, where three times in six years he took teams to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, his two seasons as a Kentucky assistant proved to be the overriding factor in Newton offering the job and Smith accepting it.
"To really understand the job, you have to have been here," Newton said. "What I thought he was was an outstanding basketball coach and person who happens to be black."
Said Smith: "Once the fans take you in as a Wildcat, you're a Wildcat forever."
So far, the transition on the court has been smooth, if not quite seamless. The Wildcats have gone from playing their frenzied, full-court defense to a more smothering half-court game. They have gone from firing three-pointers at will to pounding the ball more inside. But Smith's teams have always been ready to run, and this year's Kentucky team will do the same.
"There's going to be some little differences as far as their coaching," said senior guard Cameron Mills. "As far as people, they're as different as you can be. Coach Smith is a lot more relaxed; Coach Pitino was always intense, hyped up. With Coach Smith, you don't know if he's going to pat you on the butt or get in your face."
The biggest adjustment for Smith is how little time he has of his own. His life is chronicled in the local newspapers, including the fact that he was nominated to join Lexington Country Club or that the youngest of his three sons would be going to the middle school that feeds into local high school power Lexington Catholic.
Another son, Saul, is a freshman guard on the Kentucky team. He said that he not only has to get used to playing for his father, but also seeing his father treated as a celebrity.
"They tend to put the coaches here up on pedestals, like they're a movie star," said Saul Smith.
But the new coach is trying to just be Tubby, whose nickname stuck long after little Orlando stopped hogging the wash basin his mother used before the family home had no running water. He knows that every Kentucky coach going back to "The Baron: himself was treated as some high-falutin' big-timer, but that's not going to change him.
"All I wanted to do was teach and coach. That's why I got into this business," he said.
Being the first black coach at this storied program never figured into the plans. But Smith knows the impact he might have, even on people he has never met.
"I think it goes to a lot of people's hopes and dreams," he said. "It shows that if you work hard, when the opportunity presents itself, you go after it."
Pub Date: 11/20/97