Continued from previous page
Posted: Wed April 1, 1998
Smith's compassion and his industry come from growing up one of
17 kids in a low-country Maryland farm family. In the 1966 NCAA
final, played at Maryland's Cole Field House, a Kentucky team
coached by Adolph Rupp lost to Texas Western, the first national
champion to start five black players. Smith, then 14, was no
Kentucky fan that night. "Not so much because [Texas Western]
was black," he says. "But seeing the underdogs win the way they
did gives all underdogs some hope. That's what it did for me."
Under Pitino, Kentucky had been the classic overdog, a 94-foot
force of nature. Those close to him say Pitino lit out for the
Boston Celtics last spring in part because he didn't believe
that the Wildcats, after sending six players to the NBA over two
years, could win a title this season. And while it's hard to
think of a squad with five players who were national champions
two years ago as Team Woebegone, the group that Smith inherited
did need remedial work. In December the Wildcats lost at home to
a Louisville team that would go 12-20. After Pitino, their style
seemed so pedestrian that one talk-radio caller voiced a
heretofore unthinkable question: How come the basketball
Wildcats can't be as exciting as Hal Mumme's pass-happy football
Jamaal Magloire took care of business
upstairs during the game.
Following another home loss, to Mississippi on Valentine's Day,
Smith ordered up supplemental 6 a.m. practices. Ole Miss would
be the Wildcats' last loss of the season. "After we lost those
three home games, even I wanted to call my own radio show and
say, 'You bum!'" Smith said last week. "Now I think people in
Kentucky have accepted that maybe this guy knows a little bit."
On Monday night, while Smith was thanking (in no particular
order) God, his parents, his wife, Pitino, Kentucky athletic
director C.M. Newton, the players, the school president, the
fans, the Utes ("for their good effort"), the NCAA, "all the
teams that played in the tournament," the media, San Antonio and
"all the players I've ever coached"and then thanked them all
over againPitino was watching in a friend's Miami Beach condo,
unable to work out the logistics of chartering a jet to the game.
"Rick is the most charismatic communicator and master teacher
and coach I've ever seen in one package," says Newton, who hired
both Pitino and his successor. "We had a whole team of kids
coming back that he recruited. We had to have someone whose ego
would permit the inevitable comparisons to Ricksomeone
confident enough in himself, because those comparisons would be
Early in the season Smith proved to Newton that he was that man.
Guard Allen Edwards had let slip that he thought the team ought
to be pressing more, and his comments were bandied about in the
media. "Now, there are three ways to respond to that," Newton
says. "One is to tell the player to shut up, that this is my
team, and we'll do things my way. Another is to get defensive
and make a big deal of it. Then there's the way Tubby handled
it: He said, 'Allen is a good young man, a college student
entitled to express his opinionsbut, hey, I'm the head coach,
and I'll determine the best defense.' Allen had bought into
Rick's philosophy, and Tubby had enough patience and
understanding to handle it without feeling threatened."
Success is a choice, or so goes the title of the latest of
Pitino's motivational tomes. But for the man who took Pitino's
place, success is more like an imperative, at least to a black
man coaching at a place that rose to prominence under Rupp, who
well into his retirement was telling sportswriters that the game
suffered from having too many blacks playing it. Newton still
gets unsigned hate mail criticizing his choice of a replacement
for Pitino. But the achievement of Smith's first team is certain
to have Newton repeating one of his favorite lines with more
gusto than ever: "Who's our coach isn't a black-and-white issue.
It's a blue-and-white issue."
Smith and his team won over college basketball fans in this
Final Four even as the rotund Majerus and his Utes staked a
worthy claim of their own for the nation's affections. Majerus
was an assistant at Marquette when wisecracking Al McGuire won
the national title in his valedictory season, 1977, and now he
does a better McGuire than McGuire himself. Utah's hotel in San
Antonio was "one step ahead of the health department," Majerus
told the media. The Utes don't make the late-night highlight
shows because, "What are they gonna say? 'Here's a down screen
and a jump shot?'" At a press conference on Sunday, as someone
asked Miller a convoluted, racially charged question, the P.A.
system began warbling with feedback, and Majerus, sensing where
the question was going, seized the moment. "It's God," he said.
"Sending you a message."
Smith stepped up
and made the final cut.
Not since that 1977 NCAA title run that Coach Al called
"seashells and balloons" has a coach been such a people's
choice. Majerus isn't going anywhere, however, except perhaps to
another coaching job at Arizona State or in the pros. So not
beating Kentucky was just so much more scallops and Blimpies.
Moments after Monday's final buzzer, the Wildcats repaired to
their locker room to receive their most public fan, Kentucky
alumna, actress and Academy Awards presenter Ashley Judd, who
has now strung together two Mondays she's not likely to forget.
Donna Smith, the coach's wife, was among those who helped Judd
pick out the thigh-and-mighty dress that caused gasps when she
swanned onstage at the Oscars. Says Judd, "When I became
something of a scandal, Donna said, 'You know what? Four old
ladies picked that dress out. You're doing what we can't.'"
In a way, Donna Smith's husband was doing the same on Monday
night, achieving what others before him couldn't because they
never had the opportunity to try. His feat was made all the more
poignant by the fact that Rupp's widow, Esther, died the day
before the championship game.
Kentucky's victory also came only hours after North Carolina
forward Makhtar Ndiaye retracted and apologized for a baseless
charge, leveled after Utah's 65-59 semifinal defeat of the Tar
Heels last Saturday, that the Utes' Britton Johnsen had hurled
the n word at him. The 1998 title game seemed to hold out some
hope that perhaps racism is finally ready to take its leave from
In the Bluegrass they'll come up with a nickname for this team,
something to fall in line behind Rupp's Runts, the Fiddlin'
Five, the Unforgettables and the Untouchables. But to fans in 49
other states, those who have always had a hard time warming up
to the Wildcats, Tubby Smith's first team might be known as the
Irresistibles. "Allen Edwards's mother passed away this season,"
center Nazr Mohammed said last week. "I had my weight situation
[Mohammed dropped 60 pounds to get to his current 240]. Scott
[Padgett] had to come back from flunking out [his freshman
year], and Shep had to sit out last season. Every player on our
team endured some kind of hardship."
It's all worth it when you can step out on a stage before
millions on a Monday night, virtually naked to the world. When
you can take a heart that aches on Valentine's Day and make it
Issue date: April 6, 1998