Smith, Tubby 1951–
Tubby Smith 1951–
College basketball coach
Tubby Smith, University of Kentucky’s head basketball coach, not only proved he could maintain the program at the school, he improved it. In just one season, The Wildcats—under his leadership—won the NCAA Championship. His climb was not meteoric, but Smith proved that with hard work and perseverance, you can make it to the top—even if the top is just head coach of a college basketball team.
Orlando Smith, was born on June 30, 1951 in Scotland, Maryland, a farming community on the Southern Peninsula of the state. Guffrie and Parthenia Smith’s sixth of 17 children acquired his nickname, Tubby, because of his fondness for taking baths in an old utility tub. His father was heavily influenced by his time in the military where he won a Purple Heart as a soldier in Italy in World War II. To support his brood of 17, Guffrie Smith farmed, barbered, drove a school bus, worked construction, and was a maintenance worker. Tubby had a very strict upbringing growing up on the farm, and though the chores were always there, Smith’s parents insisted that he go to school. He attended an all-black school until the tenth grade when he transferred to a just-integrated Great Mills High School. Smith was named All-State in 1969 and earned a scholarship at High Point College in North Carolina to play point guard.
As one of three African Americans on the campus, Smith was contacted by a number of civil rights groups, including the Black Panthers, who wanted him to get more involved in the racial struggles of the time. But like his father before him, Smith had decided to do good from within the system. Smith earned his teaching degree in 1973 after lettering all four years and being selected All-Carolina Conference his senior year. He taught Physical Education and coached three sports for six years at Great Mills High School and Hoke County High in Raeford, North Carolina.
In 1979 Smith began his ascent towards college basketball’s coaching mountaintop. He became an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth University. He spent seven years there, three years at South Carolina, and then two years as an assistant to Rick Pitino at Kentucky—working with the man he would ultimately replace.
At a Glance…
Born Orlando Smith in Scotland, Maryland; son of Guffie (farmer) and Parthenia Smith; married Donna Smith; children; Orlando jr., Saul, and Brian, Education : Attended Great Mills High School and then High Point College in North Carolina.
Career: Great Mills High School, physical education teacher, coach; Hoke County High School, physical education teacher, coach; Virginia Commonwealth University, assistant head coach; South Carolina, asst head coach; Kentucky, asst, head coach; Tulsa University head basketball coach, 1991-95; Georgia University, head basketball coach, 1995-97; University of Kentucky, head basketball coach, 1997.
Honor/awards: Won NCAA National Championship in mens basketball, 1998.
Addresses : Office —Head Coach, Men’s Basketball, University of Kentucky, Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, KY 40506.
place After 12 years as an assistant coach and six years as a high school coach, Smith finally was named a head coach in 1991 at Tulsa University. Smith told Dave Kindred of The Sporting News about the perseverance it takes to make it as a head coach in big-time college basketball: “My father always said to keep working and something good will happen … It’s like some assistant coaches today. They’ll be working five years and say they’re never going to get the head job they want. Five years? Try 17 years—17 years before I got to this level.” In four seasons, Smith took the Golden Hurricane to a 79-43 record. In Smith’s last two seasons at the previously unheralded basketball school, Tulsa went 23-8 and 24-8 and made consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
After creating a world-class program in four years, Smith began to attract the attention of bigger programs around the country. Georgia University’s athletic director Vince Dooley chose Smith to lead the Bulldogs out of basketball mediocrity. At the age of 44 Smith took over the Georgia team in 1995 and immediately revitalized the program. Smith installed a fast-paced system which emphasized running and pressing—a very similar style of play to Pitino’s Wildcats at Kentucky. Upon signing the six-year deal for $115,000 per season, Smith became Georgia’s first black head coach. Smith also brought his son Orlando Jr. with him to play point guard for the Bulldogs. Smith took Georgia, known primarily for its football program, and pushed his teams to consecutive 20-win seasons, including another trip to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldog faithful even coined the term “Tubbyball” (basketball played at a fast pace both offensively and defensively.) But his success was noted by more that just Georgia fans, such as Kentucky athletic director CM. Newton.
In the spring of 1997 the Boston Celtics offered Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino $70 million to direct the beleaguered NBA franchise. Pitino, who had led the Wildcats to two straight appearances in the NCAA Finals, including a National Championship in 1996, left Kentucky and his fervent following. Newton knew he would have to select a coach totally different from the hoops demi-god Pitino. The Wildcat athletic director told Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated, “Rick is so charismatic that he attracts an almost cultlike following, so a successor anything like him would have been at a distinct disadvantage.… We wanted someone with such a different personality that people wouldn’t make comparisons. Tubby fits perfectly. The only comparisons you hear are basketball comparisons.” And the fact that the only comparisons between the two men revolved around coaching was remarkable.
Smith became the first black head basketball coach at the University of Georgia with little fanfare, but at the University of Kentucky, it was a different story. Former Wildcat basketball coach and bluegrass-state icon Adolph Rupp did not have a black player on his roster until 1971. Kentucky’s 1966 loss in the NCAA Championship game to an all-black Texas Western team was one of the symbolically key moments in the desegregation of college basketball. The atmosphere surrounding the head basketball coach at Kentucky was always intense, but now there was a racial element thrown into the pressure cooker. One local writer even warned Smith not to come to Kentucky. A columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader said that Wildcat fans were not ready for a black coach and that she feared for Smith’s safety. In the face of all the pressures, Smith remained calm and kept his focus on basketball. He told Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Constitution that though being the university’s first black coach was significant, “It’s more important that I am competent. It’s important for me to be judged on the content of my character and not the color of my skin. I know there are black people who are interested and excited because I’m black. And I am honored that they feel that way. But I know that Coach (C.M.) Newton hired me because of my competency as a coach.” Smith made all the right moves, such as visiting Adolph Rupp’s son, but he knew that the best way to divert attention away from issues other than basketball was to win.
Smith inherited a Wildcat team that in the last two years had lost six players to the NBA draft. Despite this major loss of talent, expectations were still sky-high as the Wildcats had made two appearances in the NCAA Championship game and won one national title in that two-year period. While his Kentucky team was 14-2 and ranked sixth in the nation at midseason, it was apparent that Smith did not have the deep, dominating teams of the last two seasons. Smith guided his team to the 1998 NCAA Tournament, but then seemed to unleash “TubbybalT upon his unsuspecting foes. Early in the tournament, Kentucky fell behind Duke by 17 points, but then went on a 35-15 run to defeat Duke 86-84. In the semifinal against Stanford, Kentucky was down by ten points in the second half before winning 86-85 in overtime. And in the NCAA Championship game Smith’s team was trailing by ten at the half, but then again came back to defeat Utah 78-69 to win the school’s seventh NCAA title and its second in three years. As Newton told Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated: “Who’s our coach isn’t a black-and-white issue. It’s a blue-and-white issue.” Now the only questions Smith has to answer are how he would be able to top his first season as the Wildcats coach.
Jet, April 17, 1995, p. 50.
Sports Illustrated, January 19, 1998, p. 58; March 30, 1998, p. 34; April 6, 1998, p.36.
The Atlanta Constitution, May 13, 1997.
The Sporting News, January 1, 1996, p34; May 19, 1997, p.9; April 6, 1998, p. 77.
—Michael J. Watkins