Day 7: Kentucky | Traveling Violations
LEXINGTON, Ky. – With 10 television cameras beaming his likeness to every corner of the Commonwealth and 75 media members waiting on every word, Tubby Smith did his best to make the most of one of his least favorite duties as the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Talking to the media? Smith could do without that, which is why he is one of the least accessible coaches in the nation even though he is trailed by college basketball's largest media contingent.
Dealing with the expectations and demands of fans? If Smith were given his way, he would coach in a vacuum, an ironic trait for someone who's every move is watched and analyzed by the game's most intense fan base.
But that's Smith and that's Kentucky and while it isn't always smooth, it is a marriage that continues to flourish into its 7th season.
Smith is coming off of a tremendous year. His Wildcats (32-4) dominated the regular season, putting together a 26-game win streak, sweeping through the SEC and earning Smith consensus national coach of the year honors. Only a Dwyane Wade triple-double could derail UK in the NCAA tournament.
This only cranks up the attention on Smith, no matter how little he enjoys it.
"When people talk about the Big Blue Nation," Smith said referring to UK fans, "it's real."
This is a pressure that can crush lesser men. The time demands of the UK job are enormous. The expectations are unchanged – win or else. The focus on the program never dims.
That is Kentucky.
"There are two ways to handle it," said Pat Forde, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. "The (Rick) Pitino method and the Tubby method.
"The Pitino method was to be as big or bigger than the program, the source of all light and heat and attention. Adolph Rupp had what Pitino had, that force of personality. The Tubby method is much more insular. He just wants to coach basketball and keep himself isolated in the basketball part. He's not part of the entertainment."
Smith has no interest in being bigger than the program. He doesn't seek attention or adulation. Instead he talks of "narrowing your focus" during the season, cutting down on appearances, speeches and outside distraction until it is just him and the team.
He does a tremendous job ignoring the outside criticism of his program, stuff that borders on the insane.
Take recruiting, where Smith is annually questioned, critiqued and second-guessed. UK, despite its many advantages has not signed many McDonald's All-Americans under Smith.
Smith either doesn't want them, preferring more team-oriented players, or he doesn't get them. This frustrates some fans to no end.
But then the players who do sign turn out to be good enough to win 26 games in a row.
"You win with competitive guys," said senior Cliff Hawkins. "Guys willing to sacrifice for things. That is what Coach Smith looks for. A lot of All-Americans want to be the man, (and have) everything focused on them. But a lot of those teams don't get very far."
Sounds reasonable. To some it isn't.
It is one of the reasons why Smith appears a bit uneasy on things like media day. He spent about 20 minutes reading from notes, commenting on every aspect of the program from the schedule to the staff. Then he took eight or nine questions and declared he had a meeting to attend and that was that.
All the while he fretted with his answers, clearly worried something might come out wrong.
Like during the media day two years ago when he declared he had never had a more talented team – a statement that sent the fans into euphoria dreaming of the pending eighth NCAA title. Instead the team imploded due to off court problems, although, in true UK fashion, it still managed to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
"What a mistake," said Smith, who may never again be so bold. "The biggest mistake I ever made."
So Thursday he dodged and danced, like when he was asked about some of his opponents.
"I hate to talk to the media because I get clammy and scared when I talk about those teams because I know how good they are."
So he didn't answer, trying to dim the attention on himself while leaving the largest media contingent serving the most passionate fan base in the nation with one less morsel of information to digest.
But that's how it is. The more they ask, the less he gives.
It is a formula that you wouldn't think would work, but winning streaks keep proving it does.
- Tubby Smith