Tubby Smith; Kentucky Wildcats Basketball

Welcome to the first edition of “Talkin ‘Tubby”, where we travel back in time and look at some of the most memorable players, coaches and games of the time from the Tubby Smith era with the Kentucky Wildcats, and some of the most heartbreaking moments as well.

This new series, “Talkin ‘Tubby,” is a much-deserved tribute to the Tubby Smith era in Kentucky. Every BBN can remember Tubby winning the 1998 NCAA National Championship in his very first season in Kentucky. Much of BBN will tell you that it was because Tubby had Rick Pitino’s players, which is certainly hard to ignore. But let’s be right, it’s HARD to win the national championship, ridiculously hard.

Just the year before in 1997, Pitino failed to win the national title with many of the same players. Tubby deserves the credit, along with his players, for winning the 1998 National Championship.

Orlando “Tubby” Smith was hired by the University of Kentucky in 1997 when he was faced with the near-impossible task of replacing legendary coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was the man. He was a celebrity at the highest level, taking the UK to back-to-back national title matches, after which he left for the Boston Celtics.

In the UK, Pitino had NBA stars, used an exciting basketball brand with a full-court press, fast playing speed, 3-point shooters and high-flying dunkers – it was an unforgettable era of Kentucky basketball.

No matter who was hired to replace Pitino, they would be in the very big shadow of a Kentucky legend.

So here comes Tubby and follows Pitino: Just think of the pressure, the expectations, the number of critics and no-sayers. But what does Tubby do, he goes out and wins the national championship in his first year in Lexington!

And along the way, Tubby’s team gave Kentucky some of the best matches and top moments in Kentucky’s basketball history:

  • 1998 Elite 8 game vs. Duke = one of the most underrated Kentucky games ever – a 17-point comeback to send the Cats to the Final Four. We all know the memorable clips from Cameron Mills kick-out 3, DAGGER by Scott Padgett at the top of the keyboard, and the clutch plays in the 2nd half by Wayne Turner.

Now it must be noted. While Tubby won the title in 1998 with Pitino’s players, he did so WITHOUT an NBA lottery and WITHOUT a 1st Team All-American player. The only way Tubby manages this is by being a great basketball coach. So sure he had Pitino’s players, but it was not like Jamal Mashburn, Ron Mercer, Tony Delk, Derek Anderson or Antoine Walker. Tubby won the NCAA Championship in 1998 for his own merits, his own coaching and his own basketball brand.

But Tubby, even as a championship coach, was not without criticism. “Tubbyball” was slower than what Kentucky fans were used to, and had a negative connotation across BBN. However, I often wonder if Tubby had followed Eddie Sutton or even Billy Gillespie, would his basketball style have been so criticized? I do not think it would have been; if Tubby followed a DIFFERENT modern coach than Pitino, I think “Tubby ball” would have been much more embraced by BBN.

Let’s look at some of the statistics here from the Tubby era:

  • Tubbyball had a 76% win rate during his tenure in the UK and won 263 matches across 10 seasons
  • 2003 = 16-0 SEC Conference Record
  • 5 total regular season SEC conference titles for Tubby
  • 5 SEC Tournament titles for Tubby
  • 6 Sweet 16 Appearances and 4 Elite 8 Appearances
  • 1x NCOY and 3x SEC COY

Tubby resigned in 2007 – due to increasing pressure and criticism across the BBN. The new slogan across BBN was nicknamed “10-loss Tubby”, then for-sale signs in the yard and general fatigue from large parts of BBN.

And let’s be honest, I sincerely believe that part of Tubby’s growing criticism was his son, Saul Smith, who had a less than fantastic playing career with the Cats. While Tubby resigned and was not fired, there was probably also just a mutual need for divorce. Tubby did a good job in Kentucky, but the fan base got louder and louder, and Tubby felt less and less supported.

Tubby entered the UK Hall of Fame in 2013, and from this season his name hangs in the rafters of Rupp – a truly deserved honor for Coach Smith.

After Kentucky, he was head coach at Minnesota, then at Texas Tech, then Memphis, and then returned to his alma mater at High Point, which he coached this year at Rupp Arena. Tubby has made his rounds in the coaching circuit, but he is one of only 2 coaches who have ever taken 5 different programs to the NCAA tournament.

Tubby retired from coaching this season (2022) while at High Point. He retired in February during the season and was replaced by his son GG, who Tubby coached in Georgia. Truly one of the best men’s basketball coaches in modern history, Tubby Smith’s coaching success can only be equated with the intensity of his gaze – you know the one, the INTENSIVE lingering gaze, the eyeballs that almost pop out that he would give his players after an unfortunate mistake during a game. BBN knows look, BBN loved that look!

Continue reading in our Tubby Smith series. Upcoming articles will feature “the best players from the Tubby era”, along with the biggest wins from the Tubby era, unforgettable moments from the Tubby era and more.

If you love Kentucky basketball and were a diehard fan in the 90’s and early 2000’s, you will not want to miss our Tubby Smith series!

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