Found July 16, 2013 on
Orlando “Tubby” Smith will forever be ingrained into the minds of Kentucky fans for bringing home the 1998 National Championship. Smith took the reins after Rick Pitino lead the ‘Cats to back-to-back title game appearances, winning the title in ’96. Pitino then left for the Boston Celtics, and Tubby Smith came to pick up the pieces. Smith was not the high profile hire that Kentucky fans wanted, and the natives were already feeling spurned from Pitino’s departure.
‘Cats fans were used to a high pace, offensive machine of a team on the basketball court. Tubby Smith’s coaching style was already known to Kentucky fans from his days at Georgia. The slower, more defensive oriented style Smith brought to the table received mixed reviews among the fans. The new coach started his Kentucky career 11-1, suffering the lone defeat to defending champion Arizona in the Maui Invitational. Arizona was the same team that dispatched Kentucky just 7 months earlier in the ’97 national title game. Despite his great start, Smith’s tenure was instantly clouded by an upset home loss to heated rival Louisville. Smith responded by winning the next 9 games and going undefeated in the month of January. The ‘Cats would go on to win the SEC regular season championship, and the SEC Tournament. Kentucky earned a #2 seed in the South region of the NCAA Tournament, and upset top-seeded Duke in the Elite 8. ‘Cats fans later coined the phrase “The Redemption Game” for the comeback in vs. Duke in ’98 after the Blue Devils hit a buzzer beater in the Elite 8 against UK in ’92. Kentucky then came back from deficits against Stanford and Utah en route to their 7th national title and Smith’s first crown as a coach. The 1998 team as a whole is very unique in today’s standards. The “Comeback ‘Cats” won the national title without an All-American or a future NBA Draft lottery pick.
Unfortunately for Tubby Smith, the pinnacle of his time at Kentucky was the 1998 season. He was mired with constant criticism about his recruiting tactics, style of play, and lackluster results. Smith once passed on the opportunity to have Corey Brewer in a Kentucky uniform, citing he was too skinny for the SEC. Brewer went to Florida, won back-to-back national titles, and went on to the NBA. Besides ’98, Smith’s closest thing to another Final Four was in 2003 and 2005. Kentucky went 19-0 in the SEC, winning the SEC regular season and tournament titles in ’03. The ‘Cats were given a #1 seed, and seemed destined for a Final Four appearance. The dream slowly began to sink with the twist of an ankle from starting point guard Keith Bogans. Everything took a turn for the worst in the regional final against Dwayne Wade and the Marquette Golden Eagles. The ‘Cats had not lost in 3 months, and the Golden Eagles had not seen a Final Four since the 1970′s. Wade tallied 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists in Marquette’s 83-69 win. In 2005, the ‘Cats entered the NCAA’s as a #2 seed and fell to Michigan State in double overtime of the South regional final.
Despite being so close, Smith never went back to a Final Four after ’98. Many ‘Cats fans reminisce on that title and mention Tubby having Pitino’s players. Smith’s 9 year long “drought” from the Final Four was the longest ever for a Kentucky coach. With each passing year, the pressure mounted. Smith would wake up to “For Sale” signs in his yard, and being called “Ten Loss Tubby” for his lackluster results. Smith left Kentucky in March of 2007 for Minnesota.
I firmly believe Tubby Smith should be honored in Rupp Arena. He compiled a 263-83 record at UK, winning 76% of his games. Besides Adolph Rupp, Smith won 100 games faster than any other coach. He is already among the elite coaches at Kentucky by winning his national title. Only 5 of Kentucky’s 22 coaches have won a title. If you are one of those people that says he won the title with Pitino’s players, I won’t argue with you. Someone had to lead them, and Smith orchestrated that team to greatness. The ’98 ‘Cats were not expected to make it out of their region, let alone get to the Final Four or win a title. Off the basketball court, Smith was an exemplary spokesman for the University of Kentucky. Smith and his wife Donna were very involved in the community and charity functions. I will forever be eternally grateful to Smith for his time and service to Kentucky on and off the basketball court. For any other program, Smith would already be hanging in the rafters if he won a title and had the same success elsewhere. For a man of his integrity and successes, I would find it shameful not to honor him one more time in Rupp Arena.
The video below is of Smith answering questions about possibly being honored at Kentucky:
YouTube Credit: CommonwealthNetwork2
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