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Talkin’ Tubby: A New Series

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Top games, players, and heart-breaks from the Tubby Smith era

NCAA Basketball: High Point at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

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

This new series, “Talkin’ Tubby”, is a very deserving tribute to the Tubby Smith era at Kentucky. All of BBN can remember that Tubby won the 1998 NCAA National Championship in his very first season at Kentucky. Much of BBN will tell you it was because Tubby had Rick Pitino’s players, which is certainly tough to ignore. But let’s be real, it’s TOUGH to win the national championship, ridiculously tough.

Just the year prior 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, facing the near-impossible task of replacing legendary coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was the man. He was a top-tier celebrity, taking UK to back-to-back national title games, then having left for the Boston Celtics.

At UK, Pitino had NBA stars, used an exciting brand of basketball with a full-court press, fast speed of play, 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 find themselves in the very large shadow of a Kentucky legend.

So here comes Tubby, following Pitino: Just think about the pressure, the expectations, the number of critics and naysayers. 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 squad gave Kentucky some of the top games, and top moments, in Kentucky basketball history:

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

Now, it needs to be noted. While Tubby won the 1998 Title with Pitino’s players, he did so WITHOUT an NBA lottery pick and WITHOUT a 1st Team All-American player. The only way Tubby pulls this off is by being a terrific basketball coach. So sure, he had Pitino’s players, but it wasn’t like Jamal Mashburn, Ron Mercer, Tony Delk, Derek Anderson, or Antoine Walker. Tubby won the 1998 NCAA Championship by his own merit, his own coaching, and his own brand of basketball.

But Tubby, even as a championship coach, wasn’t without criticism. “Tubbyball” was slower than what Kentucky fans were used to, and carried a negative connotation across BBN. I often wonder though, had Tubby followed Eddie Sutton or even Billy Gillespie, would his style of basketball been as criticized? I don’t think it would have been; if Tubby followed any modern coach OTHER than Pitino, I think “Tubby ball” would have been MUCH more widely embraced by BBN.

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

  • Tubbyball had a 76% win rate in his tenure at UK, winning 263 games 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 mounting pressure and criticism across BBN. The new slogan across BBN became the “10-loss Tubby” nickname, then for-sale signs in the yard, and overall fatigue from much of BBN.

And let’s be honest, I genuinely think that a part of Tubby’s growing criticism was his son, Saul Smith, having a less than stellar playing career with the Cats. While Tubby resigned and was not fired, there was probably also just a mutual need of parting ways. Tubby did a great job at Kentucky, but the fanbase was growing louder and louder, and Tubby was feeling less and less supported.

Tubby entered UK Hall of Fame in 2013, and as of this season, his name hangs in the rafters at Rupp - a truly deserving honor for Coach Smith.

Following Kentucky, he was the head coach at Minnesota, then to Texas Tech, then Memphis, and then returned to his alma mater at High Point, which he coached this year in Rupp Arena. Tubby has made his rounds in the coaching circuit, but he is one of only 2 coaches to ever take 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 G.G., whom Tubby coached at Georgia. Truly one of the top men’s basketball coaches in modern history, Tubby Smith’s coaching success can only be paralleled by the intensity of his stare - you know the one, the INTENSE lingering stare, eyeballs nearly popping out, that he would give his players after an unfortunate mistake during a game. BBN knows the stare, BBN loved that stare!

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

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