Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium was special. Not just because the Wildcats were trying to knock off the top 20 ranked Florida Gators, but because there were Kentucky legends in attendance. New inductees to the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame were present and made their way to the middle of the field at halftime to be honored by the fans. Rex Chapman was there among others, but one member stood out above the rest.
The last person introduced to the rowdy crowd of over 60,000 was greeted with chants of "Tub-by! Tub-by! Tub-by!" Orlando "Tubby" Smith had come home. He wasn't greeted with a smattering of boos or with resentment; but with open arms and affection.
It's true that he didn't leave the Blue Grass on the best of terms. "Ten Loss Tubby" was a nickname given to him as season after season his teams underperformed and lost 10 or more games. Tubby could recruit, but the knock on his recruiting was that he couldn't do much with the talent and that the players he brought to Kentucky in his later years weren't the high school studs the fans were used to.
Outside of winning a title in 1998 with "Rick Pitino's Players", Tubby never made it past the Elite Eight. After years of disappointment, Smith unceremoniously resigned his position as head coach at Kentucky among growing unrest in the fan base and took a job as the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
But he deserved more than that. He went 263-83 at Kentucky, winning 76% of his games. He never missed the NCAA tournament. He won 100 games in his first 130, which at the time, was faster than any coach except Adolph Rupp. He won twenty or more games in each of his 10 seasons at Kentucky. He won the SEC tournament in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2004. He was SEC coach of the year in 1998, 2003, and 2005. He was named the Naismith Coach of the Year in 2003. And of course he won a national championship and joined the elite ranks of Kentucky coaches such as Adolph Rupp, Rick Pitino, and Joe B. Hall.
And let's not forget some of the great players that played for Smith: Tayshaun Prince, Rajon Rondo, Keith Bogans, Jamaal Magloire, Chuck Hayes, Gerald Fitch, and the list goes on and on...
Now that coach Smith is back into the fold and all hurt feelings are in the past, it's time to go one step further and give him the ultimate honor that Kentucky basketball has to give: a jersey in the rafters at historic Rupp Arena.
Smith deserves to be elevated above the floor with Pitino, Rupp, Hall, Cawood Ledford, Bill Spivey, Bill Keightley, Dan Issel, Jamal Mashburn, Cliff Hagan, and the other legends of Wildcat basketball.
He's done something that only three other coaches since Rupp have done by winning a national title at Kentucky. Some fans dismiss the title in 1998 by saying that Tubby inherited a championship team. But that's not altogether true. Many of the players that participated in the title showings in 1996 and 1997 were gone. Players like Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty and Tony Delk were in the NBA. The cupboard wasn't bare when Tubby took over, but it certainly wasn't as stacked as many make it out to be.
I've had conversations with Cameron Mills, who was there for all three national title appearances, and he is adamant in saying that Tubby was responsible for leading the '98 team to the title; not Rick Pitino. Yes, Pitino recruited that team, but Tubby was the one that coached them and brought the Comeback ‘Cats from the brink of elimination multiple times in the NCAA tournament. We will never know if Pitino or some other coach would have won it all that year and it would be unfair to assume anyone other than Tubby would have done it. His brand of coaching and philosophy brought that team together and took them to the summit.
It's time to give Tubby his due; that was his team and that title belongs to him and the 1998 Wildcats, not to Rick Pitino. No one can ever take that away from him and it's time for Big Blue Nation and the University of Kentucky to give him the honor that he deserves.
Tubby is now the head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders and they are slated to come to Rupp Arena next season to face his old team. Many feel that that will be the time when Tubby will get what is coming to him.