Tubby gets redemption

Published 6:06 am Thursday, March 20, 2003

By By STEVE WILSTEIN, AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- All around the city there are piles of broken branches from winter's last brutal ice storm. The rolling bluegrass pastures in the horse country are pale green, weeks away from their spring luster. There are mares in foal, colts just born, and a run for the roses coming up.
It is the time between seasons, a time when the world here stops and only one thing matters: the Cats.
From the days of Adolph Rupp to this year of sweet redemption for Tubby Smith, March has meant the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA tournament.
They're in their 44th tournament -- their 12th straight, starting Friday in Nashville against tourney newcomer IUPUI -- and they've won it seven times. They've spoiled their fans silly.
Bewigged and beaded in blue, Kentucky fans turned the Superdome into Rupp Arena South at last weekend's Southeastern Conference tournament, and they planned on going back for more of the same raucous good time at the Final Four in April.
If some in Blue Nation came to New Orleans still suspicious of Smith, they left by joining the growing chants of ''Tub-bee, Tub-bee.''
In a scandal-stained season for college basketball at schools as diverse as Georgia, St. Bonaventure and Villanova, Smith is a shoo-in for national coach of the year.
The Cats' No. 1 ranking, a 29-3 record, 23 straight victories and a sweep through the powerful Southeastern Conference are credentials enough for a coach whose team was picked to finish third in the SEC East.
But Smith has added something else: dignity to a profession that can use all it can find.
A thick wood shepherd's staff, taller than Smith, stands in a corner behind his desk. A gift from Cameron Mills, one of the captains on Smith's 1998 national champions in his first season as Kentucky's head coach, it is a symbol of the challenges Smith has faced on perhaps the nation's most fervent basketball campus.
God still ranks above the game here, but church services start earlier and sermons are shorter when the Cats play Sunday afternoons.
Smith has tried to rescue more than a few wayward players, succeeding with some, losing others, while fighting off all the wolfish critics who have attacked him and them since he took over for Rick Pitino six years ago. He's played by the rules, come down hard on his players when they broke them, and proved he could win with the players he inherited and those he recruited.
Smith couldn't win for winning until this season. Some Kentucky fans never forgave him for not being Pitino, for not running an offense like Pitino's or getting recruits like him.
The 1998 championship team -- that was Pitino's players, critics carped. Never mind that it might actually be tougher to win with players recruited by another coach.
Three straight years with double-digit losses -- Pitino never had that, fans grumbled. Forget that the Wildcats averaged 23 victories those seasons, despite injuries and suspensions.
This year's 81-63 loss to Pitino's Louisville Cardinals -- that got them howling.
Now Smith has redeemed himself, doing it on his own terms with speed and depth on a team that has no star.
It is a team whose strength is its coaching, the soft-spoken but firm leadership of a man who dresses like an ambassador and holds himself and his players to a high standard.
Smith says he filters out the racial undertones of some of the criticism and takes pride in being the first black coach at a school that once epitomized segregation under Rupp. Smith was 14 when he watched Rupp's all-white team lose in the 1966 NCAA championship game against Texas Western's five black starters.
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