Some people joke that college basketball is the second religion of the state of Kentucky. I'm not sure, however, that it isn't the first religion here. In fact, I once wrote a paper (only half in jest) about the liturgy of Rupp Arena, the home of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.
We take our basketball very, very seriously. Far too seriously, in fact. The whole state suffers from a collective neurosis. But, before I lampoon that neurosis too much, I should note both that I, too, suffer from it, and that it is, in fact, a very understandable neurosis.
As a state, too often Kentucky suffers from an inferiority complex. We aren't good at very many things, and some of the things we're quite good at - say, coal mining and tobacco - aren't very good for you. But basketball... we have a long heritage of being very good at that. So basketball is a source of great pride in the commonwealth. It is something that we excel at, and can be proud of.
The problem is that sometimes in the pursuit of excellence, we do some pretty stupid things. In the 1950s some of our players got a little bit too cozy with New York City bookies. In the 1980s a package full of money burst open on its way to the father of a recruit. Each of these scandals not only got the University of Kentucky's men's basketball program in trouble with the NCAA, they also gave the entire state a metaphorical black eye.
I'm afraid that the darker side of our collective neurotic passion for basketball has emerged again. Yesterday it was announced that Orlando "Tubby" Smith, the first black coach in the history of a program that came a little late to the desegregation table (though that's a much more complicated situation than the movie Glory Road made it seem) has resigned after guiding the men's basketball team for ten years, to accept the same position at the University of Minnesota.
Tubby Smith is a class act, and a winner. In his time at Kentucky the men's basketball program won 76% of its games, against routinely the nation's toughest schedule. In ten years he won a national title, five conference championships, and a whopping three national coach of the year awards. But being voted by your peers the very best in your profession means precious little to many of the fans here. So, despite his stellar record on the court and his character and grace off it, Tubby Smith (a United Methodist, by the way) was rarely really welcome in Kentucky.
Many national pundits are quietly attributing this to the persistence of racism, and I am ashamed to admit that there is more than a little bit of truth to that accusation. But while it is true that for some Tubby would never have truly been accepted because of the color of his skin, to attribute this whole situation to racism would be to miss many other and just as damning truths.
The fact is, Tubby Smith was never in a position to succeed with some of the fans in Kentucky, and not just because he is black. He had the misfortune of following the tenure of a charismatic savior, the most popular coach in Kentucky since the legendary Adolph Rupp, who after years on top has finally been knocked down to third place on the all time wins list for NCAA Division I men's basketball coaches. When Joe B. Hall followed Adolph Rupp, despite the fact that he regularly competed for championships and won the 1978 NCAA national title, he simply couldn't do anything right in the eyes of many fans. Even that '78 national title team was picked apart.
Similarly, when Tubby Smith followed Rick Pitino, he was in many eyes doomed from the start. Pitino had taken over a program mired in scandal and restored its glory, reaching the Final Four three times, winning the 1996 national title and losing to Arizona in the championship game the following year. Pitino's success was characterized by a frenetic, fan-friendly style of play (fitting for the school that literally invented the "fast break" years earlier) and a larger-than-life personality. No matter what he did, even if he won more than Pitino (and many years he did) and carried himself with a class that was too often missing during Pitino's years in Lexington, he simply never could live up to the Pitino myth.
So similar are their situations that when Pitino announced that he was leaving the University of Kentucky to coach the NBA's Boston Celtics (his "dream job" that quickly turned into a nightmare) Joe B. Hall joked that UK should just hire him again, since no other human being deserved to be put through that meat grinder.
No, it was not just lingering racism that poisoned many UK fans to Smith. It was the myth of the glorious past, a past that can never be repeated, much less surpassed. That Smith led a model program at the University of Kentucky meant very little. That he won regularly, and twice had his team as the top seed in the NCAA tournament meant very little, too. At Kentucky you are judged by nothing less than national championships, and in his decade of service he won "only" one of those.
The biggest knock on Tubby Smith's tenure at the helm of Kentucky's men's basketball program was that he never won with his own players. The "Association of Tubby Bashers" often repeated that tired refrain. His only national title, it is true, came with players that he inherited from Rick Pitino's time at the school. What is often overlooked is that there is a reason Pitino left when he did. He won the national title in 1996, and then nearly won it again in 1997, losing in overtime in the championship game. After those great seasons, the program looked depleted. All of the top players left to go pro. No one, least of all Pitino, who left while on top, thought that there was any hope for 1998. Tubby didn't inherit Pitino' players, he inherited Pitino's leftovers.
That 1998 team won with heart, the mark of great coaching. Tubby took what Pitino didn't want and crafted it into a national title. And while he never returned to the Final Four at Kentucky, on three other occasions he came just a game away. If it weren't for a sprained ankle here and an overtime miracle there, he may well have left Kentucky with more titles than Pitino. But, of course, we don't measure success by "close" or "what if," we measure it with championship banners. Oh well, he's only managed to tie Pitino: they each have one.
I'm not writing this to say that Tubby Smith was a better coach than Rick Pitino or Adolph Rupp, the twin lights of our state's favorite program. But he certainly does belong in their company, and the way Smith was treated in his time at Kentucky should shame the whole state.
I hate to see him leave. I grew up a Kentucky fan, from a family with season tickets to see the games in Rupp. Tubby should have been a state treasure, and I certainly admire him. But a part of me is glad to see him go, not for the "good of the program," as so many fans are trumpeting today. Rather, because the man has earned some peace. By the time he's done in Minnesota they'll probably name a building after him. In Kentucky... we should just be sadder to see him go.
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