"Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in."
-- Michael Corleone, The Godfather III
You'd think after nearly two months, a recruiting whirlwind and a few hundred articles, there would be little left to say about the Tubby Smith exit from Lexington. But you'd be wrong.
This time, you can thank this surprisingly candid interview with Atlanta-Journal Constitution arch-Tubby defender Terence Moore, who has prodded and poked the Big Blue Nation for nearly 10 years with comments like, "it was whine, whine, whine by those Wildcat Wackos, still worshiping Adolph Rupp's ghost and Rick Pitino's shadow."
Now, there are only so many words to continue to debunk this media-driven theory that UK's unreasonable fans drove Smith out of town. Last time I checked, Tubby's agent started the car, and Smith himself hopped willingly into the passenger seat. But beyond that, there's an interesting dynamic to this story.
Moore is an African-American, and proudly and loudly so. His columns on Tubby's tenure at UK over the years were often couched in the understanding that Smith was a dark face in a sea of unforgiving whiteness. Dismissing for the moment whether this is a true or false statement (I'm right when I say that one's own color, attitudes and/or prejudices would factor into one's answer to that query), it's true that for many black columnists and commentators, the issue of race and Smith's "exodus under pressure" are inextricable. And they continue to be pertinent, despite Smith self-banishment to the far reaches of the Big Ten+1.
But before anyone takes this always hot-button issue and begins talking about how it never played a role, how it isn't a factor, how it's reverse racism to even discuss being black in America, one should take note that even Der Tubster himself chimes in. Tubby, in one of the only times I have seen him ever discuss his race as it related to his job, tells Moore:
This is fascinating in part because, as I noted, Tubby was so unwilling to address this concept as head coach at Kentucky, understandably. However chummy he may be with former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, Smith seemed to shy away from the open racial identification that Richardson, and to a less extent the elder coach John Thompson, did. I don't think this was Tubby Smith's lack of feeling this way, but rather his personality and his situation.
Being African-American in the American South drives this debate. It's huge. Moore, as a columnist in Atlanta -- one of America's fastest growing and most racially tinged cities -- has long written about race and sports, and often used the then-Georgia or Kentucky head coach as a de facto example of how the color of one's skin relates to the perception of one's job performance. And in some ways, I agree with him.
Smith was for 10 years the country's highest profile black college coach. And as I noted, he was hardly it's most outspoken. This dichotomy has led to innumerable articles (almost entirely opinion pieces) about what was really going on up in Big Blue Country.
This wrankles even the most liberal Kentucky fans, as it should. Already thin-skinned and looking for bias, telling Kentucky fans they are, unintentionally or not, racists for deciding that their coach was underperforming is a guaranteed bait-and-hook. It's also a guaranteed ratings bonanza.
But, and I'm sure to lose some folks here, it's also fair game. Why? Because the issue of race in sports is never truly finished. Not for African-Americans, and not for folks willing to dig beyond the "racist" tag and examine, defend or debate the issues. It's healthy, and valuable and will continue to be.
Smith was not hired because he was black, and he wasn't fired because of it either (NOTE TO COLUMNISTS: The man wasn't fired at all!). However, pretending that his race was therefore never a factor, that it was never a consideration, that it never affected the perception of the job Smith was doing -- positively or negatively -- is simply wrong. It's impossible not to have it play a part, just as it would be impossible to say that Steve Nash's race has no role in his winning two straight NBA MVP Awards. Is it the only factor? Absolutely not! But don't take the logic leap to say, therefore, that it does not play a role.
Moore is wrong in many ways on this one, not the least of which was that fan dissatisfaction had nothing to do with Tubby's results. As someone who spent hours, and many thousands of words, defending Smith's tenure at UK, I can attest that Moore's comment that all Tubby did was "win 76 percent of the time, with NCAA tournament bids every year that produced a national championship, six trips to the Sweet 16, four to the Elite Eight and five SEC regular-season titles," is not the whole story. None of those figures, outside of NCAA bids, was pertinent to two full seasons of Kentucky basketball.
But with Smith now plying his trade in the Great Mid-North, perhaps we can less divisively take a look at what it was to have a black coach head -- and resign from -- the nation's all-time winningest, and one of its most high-profile, basketball programs. Was Tubby ever truly embraced by the UK fanbase? If not, why not? And if it was the fans' fault, maybe a good dose of non-antagonistic self-examination could shed some light on what it means to be a successful African-American in this country.
[NOTE: Tru addresses this article slightly differently below. He and John Clay talk about the "Tubby was run off" meme, mine is the racial angle.]