A Tubby Smith tribute: ‘You can’t fake a lifetime of treating people the right way’

·7 min read
Ryan C. Hermens/rhermens@herald-leader.com

With Tubby Smith’s return to Rupp Arena still fresh in mind, here’s a favorite memory from his time as Kentucky coach.

It was his second season as UK coach. Georgia had hired his friend and trusted assistant, Ron Jirsa, to succeed him in Athens. After a 20-15 record in Jirsa’s first season, Georgia fans were already grumbling.

This Kentucky game at Georgia went into overtime. Jirsa changed defenses to start the extra period. It did not throw Kentucky off. UK won 91-83.

In the postgame news conference, a clearly nervous reporter from the Georgia student newspaper asked Smith if he thought that Jirsa had been wrong to change defenses.

Visibly annoyed, Smith asked the student reporter, “What team have you ever coached?”

As he responded to the next question, Smith seemed distracted. When he finished responding, he turned back to the student reporter. He said he did not answer the reporter’s question properly and asked him to repeat it.

An almighty coach apologizing to a reporter?! The other person matters?!

“That is actually him in a nutshell,” said Allen Edwards, who played on Smith’s 1998 national championship team.

Jeff Sheppard echoed Edwards’ reaction.

“You can’t fake a lifetime of treating people the right way,” Sheppard said. “Through the ups and downs and storms of life, the true character comes out.”

A coach mocking a reporter is not unusual. A coach then speaking to the reporter in an apologetic tone is.

“I was in a moment of frustration,” Smith recalled when asked about chastising the student reporter. “I love Ron Jirsa. You hate playing against your buddies.”

Smith likened such a game to playing against a brother in the backyard. You want to win, but …

As for being mindful that another person — in this case, a reporter — merited respect, Smith said, “They’ve got a job to do. They’ve got a life. They’ve got a family. You’ve got to know and appreciate that.

“And when you look at it that way, you always come back to the point: How would I want to be treated?”

Father-son

In information distributed to the media, Western Kentucky noted that Rick and Noah Stansbury are among 25 father-son combinations on college basketball teams this season.

When asked if this is at least partly due to coaches feeling guilty about their time-consuming jobs limiting family time, Tubby Smith said, “Oh, absolutely.”

Of coaching eldest son G.G. Smith at Georgia and then middle son Saul Smith at UK, Smith said, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. My only regret is that I didn’t coach (youngest son) Brian (Smith) at Kentucky.”

UK hired Smith to replace Rick Pitino as head coach in 1997. Smith recalled sitting in the backyard watching Brian, then about 12, playing with friends.

Making conversation, Smith asked the children where their parents were from. This puzzled the children. Their parents were from — duh — Lexington.

“Brian actually turned to me and said, ‘Dad, where am I from? Where are we from?’” Smith said. “I was, like, whoa. Because by that time we’d already moved him five times.”

Smith’s reaction to Brian’s question?

“Oh, that hit me hard,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. It brought tears to my eyes. I remember going in the house and talking to Donna. I don’t know. What have we done here?”

COVID hits home

Patrick Whitmer, who is in his 15th season as public address announcer at UK home games, contracted the coronavirus last month. He tested positive two days before Kentucky played Missouri on Dec. 29. He missed that game and UK’s game against High Point on Dec. 31.

“What I really hated was missing Tubby’s ceremony,” Whitmer said of former UK coach Tubby Smith. “Like everybody, I just loved Tubby to death.”

Whitmer said he did not know how he contracted a COVID variant. He said he’s fully vaccinated, including a booster shot. He wears a mask indoors. He cited those precautions as the reason for not being seriously ill.

“I just thought I had a sinus infection,” he said before adding that the effects of the virus he experienced were fatigue and limited senses of taste and smell.

Whitmer returned for Kentucky’s game against Georgia.

“It’s definitely a passion,” he said of working the public address announcer job. “That’s first and foremost. That’s the best way to describe it.”

Whitmer drives from Owensboro for the games. He works as a risk management officer at an Owensboro bank.

Whitmer is a graduate of Transylvania (1992, accounting degree) and UK (1994, MBA).

He said he has missed a handful of UK games over the years. Because he also does P.A. work for the Cincinnati Bengals, he missed UK’s game against Tennessee. It was decided he’d do the Bengals’ playoff game against the Las Vegas Raiders (4:30 p.m. start). UK played Tennessee at 1 p.m.

Bracketology

The day after Georgia defeated Alabama in the college football championship game, The Washington Post posted its projection of the NCAA Tournament field.

Kentucky was a six-seed.

Five other SEC teams would play: LSU (two-seed), Auburn (two-seed), Alabama (four-seed), Tennessee (five-seed) and Florida (first four).

The Post had Louisville and Murray State among the last four teams getting bids. After the first four teams not getting bids, the next four out included Texas A&M.

Three conferences received more bids. The Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 each got seven bids. The ACC had five and the Pac-12 three.

Role model

Dan Issel is UK’s career leader in total rebounds (1,078) and second in rebound average (13.0).

His 29 rebounds against LSU on Feb. 22, 1969, are the fifth most ever grabbed by a UK player.

This led to a question: when it came to rebounding, who was Issel’s role model? He veered far from any backboard with his answer.

“I thought I was going to take Ernie Banks’ place with the Cubs,” Issel said.

‘Fool’s errand’

When LSU won 64-58 at Florida, it was noticed that more than twice as many fouls were called against the Tigers (22-10). LSU made seven of 11 free throws. Florida made 11 of 22.

In the postgame teleconference, LSU Coach Will Wade was asked if he would formally complain about the officiating to the league office.

“I don’t do that … It’s a fool’s errand to do all that,” he said. “I never fill out the reports because in my opinion it makes no difference. We’re just going to work on showing our hands a little bit better.”

Luck

As of Friday morning, stats savant Ken Pomeroy rated Manhattan No. 1 in luck. The Jaspers are coached by former UK player Steve Masiello. His staff includes former UK player Scott Padgett.

Manhattan (8-4) is 5-0 in games with a final margin of six points or less.

On Friday, luck seemed to have little to do with Manhattan’s 88-76 loss to Rick Pitino-coached Iona.

Well-suited

One of the signature elements that make up Jerry Stackhouse’s coaching style is the wearing of suits at games. He traced this back to his playing days for North Carolina.

“I’m going to be suited and booted,” the Vandy coach has said in the past. “Coach Dean Smith approached it as a business, and I’m going to always honor him by wearing suits on the sideline.”

X-TRA F-FERT

In alerting the media about how to correctly pronounce the names of players on its team, Georgia gave extra effort.

The alert had this headline: PRO-NUN-SEE-A-SHUN GUY’D

Happy birthday

To former Georgia coach Mark Fox. He turned 53 on Thursday. … To Shagari Alleyne. He turned 38 on Friday. … To Mike “Soft Paws” Scott. He turned 55 on Friday. … To Richard “Master Blaster” Madison. He turns 57 on Sunday (today). … To Sahvir Wheeler. He turns 21 on Monday. … To Dirk Minniefield. He turns 61 on Monday. … To James Lee. He turns 66 on Monday. … To former Marquette standout Dwyane Wade. The player whose triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) eliminated UK from the 2003 NCAA Tournament turns 40 on Monday. … To Oliver Simmons. He turns 46 on Tuesday.

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