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Head Coach Orlando “Tubby” Smith

Tubby Smith led Kentucky to the Elite Eight four times in 10 years from 1997-2007 and to a national championship in 1998.

Tubby Smith
June 30, 1951

You are about to read a series of impressive numbers regarding the coaching career of Kentucky’s Tubby Smith. How he won the NCAA title in his first season in Lexington, how he ranks sixth among active coaches in winning percentage, how he has led teams to 11-straight 20-win seasons. However, before you read all of that, consider these two numbers – 59 and 9.

That would be 59 wins and only nine losses. Over the past two seasons, no coach has led his team to more college basketball victories than Tubby Smith. And, over that same period, no coach has lost fewer games. Tack onto those numbers final regular-season Associated Press rankings of No. 1 in 2003 and No. 2 in 2004 and a 35-3 mark (regular season and conference tournament) against SEC opponents.

That’s a pretty impressive set of numbers. But for the man who won the 1998 NCAA Championship in his first year in the Commonwealth, success is no stranger.

His achievements have added to an eye-popping resume. Since arriving in 1997, Smith has led Kentucky to one national championship, four SEC crowns and five SEC Tournament titles, with five Sweet 16 finishes in his seven seasons.

Over his 13 seasons as a head coach, the 52-year-old has had 11 consecutive 20-win seasons. In 2004, he joined an elite group when he became the sixth head coach to win 300 games in 13 seasons or less, joining the likes of Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Nolan Richardson. Smith’s career record is now 315-114, and his 73.4 winning percentage is sixth among active coaches entering the 2004-05 season.

In 2001, he totaled 100 wins quicker than any other Wildcat coach except Hall of Famer Adolph Rupp, reaching the plateau in 130 games. Since taking over the UK program, he has won 79 percent of his games despite playing a schedule that annually ranks among the nation’s best.

In NCAA Tournament play, Smith is tied for the sixth-best winning percentage among active coaches, trailing Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, among others, with a sterling 24-10 record.

Even more impressive, Smith has averaged more than 27 wins per season. In the SEC Tournament, he’s 15-2 at UK, and has won a league championship six times in his 12 years as a head coach.

Not even the bluest bloods of Wildcat basketball fandom would have guessed UK could have continued its remarkable success after a national title in ’96 and a runner-up finish in ’97. After all, the team had lost six players over two seasons to the NBA and other key Cats to graduation.

When Smith took the reins for the ’98 season, he inherited a balanced roster loaded with role players. An early loss to Arizona dampened expectations. Three losses at Rupp Arena followed. UK then rebounded to win the 1998 SEC Eastern Division title and the overall SEC crown. One week later, UK rolled through the SEC Tournament in Atlanta with decisive wins over Arkansas and South Carolina.

“Tubby Ball,” a system of solid defense and rebounding, combined with his chess-match style of coaching, was on display. As a No. 2 seed in the ’98 NCAA Tournament’s South Region, UK cruised to the regional final to face top-seeded Duke with a third-consecutive trip to the Final Four hanging in the balance. The Blue Devils grabbed an 18-point lead in the first half and held a 17-point lead midway through the second half. UK’s first opportunity for redemption against Duke since Christian Laettner’s famous shot in ’92 appeared to be over. But when Smith went to a smaller lineup to counter the quicker Duke players, the Cats stormed back to win, 86-84.

UK then rallied from a five-point halftime deficit against Stanford in the national semifinals before winning in overtime, 86-85. Many pegged the contest as one of the most well coached games in the entire tournament. Then two days later, Utah had not only outrebounded the Wildcats 24-6 in the first half, but also led by 10, 41-31, at halftime. No team had ever come from behind by more than eight points in the championship game. Until Kentucky.

The game plan wore out the Utes, and the “Comeback Cats” rallied to win, 78-69.

Smith accomplished the unexpected. He led the Wildcats to their second title in three years. He had become the first coach since Cincinnati’s Ed Jucker in 1961 to win the national title in his first year at a school.

Smith was named National Coach of the Year by Basketball Weekly and Co-SEC Coach of the Year by The Associated Press. The New York Athletic Club presented Smith with the prestigious Winged Foot Award given to the coach of the national champions after each season. In the off-season, he picked up the Parent of the Year Award by Parent Magazine, the Victor Award by the Black Coaches Association and was even voted the “Sexiest Male Public Figure” in a reader’s vote in a local magazine. The honors culminated when he was named the Kentucky Sportsman of the Year for 1998 in a statewide media vote, edging out the highly popular Tim Couch of the Kentucky football team.

After earning high acclaim by winning the national title in his first season, Smith guided a team comprised of eight freshmen and sophomores to within eight points of UK’s fourth consecutive Final Four appearance. Michigan State prevailed and the Wildcats were ousted in the 1999 Midwest Region final, 73-66.

UK’s triumphs in the 1998-99 season included six wins over teams ranked in the top 11 with victories over No. 2 Maryland and No. 4 Auburn, and 13 wins over teams in the NCAA Tournament. When March arrived, Smith’s squad went to work, winning its seventh SEC Tournament title in eight years. The third-seeded Wildcats then competed in their eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament, earning an overtime win against Kansas in the second round, perhaps the most exciting game of the tourney. UK finished with a 28-9 record, tying its own NCAA record of 132 wins in a four-year period.

Since that time, the Wildcats have captured SEC Championships in 2000, 2001 and 2003. The 2001-02 team began with a preseason No. 4 national ranking, but the Cats battled an inordinate amount of injuries and suspensions before being eliminated by Maryland, the eventual national champion, in the East Region Semifinals.

In 2003, a year in which Tubby Smith’s coaching ranked among the very best in the 100 years of Kentucky basketball, the accolades arrived in a landslide. Smith snared all seven of the national honors recognized by the NCAA – AP, USBWA, Naismith, Basketball Times, The Sporting News, NABC, and CBS/Chevrolet. He became the first coach to sweep the list since Indiana’s Bobby Knight captured all five in 1975. For good measure, Smith added honors from ESPN,, the Black Coaches Association and College Sports Television.

Kentucky established the nation’s longest win streak in seven years, highlighted by a sweep of the SEC regular-season slate and tournament play (19-0), a feat that had not been accomplished in the league since 1952. His Wildcats finished No. 1in the final Associated Press poll and Smith swept SEC and National Coach of the Year honors. Kentucky ended the season in the Elite Eight with a 32-4 record, becoming just the 11th team in school history to top the 30-win mark.

His latest Wildcat edition posted a 27-5 record, a sixth SEC Eastern Division title, another SEC Tournament championship and the school’s ninth No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while spending nearly the entire season ranked among the nation’s top 10. Kentucky is Smith’s third head coaching stop. Previously, he revived two mediocre programs, Tulsa and Georgia, into NCAA title hopefuls. Prior to coming to the Bluegrass, he spent two seasons at Georgia, where he coached the Bulldogs to a 45-19 (70.3%) record and the first back-to-back seasons of 20 wins or more in school history. Prior to Georgia, he coached four seasons at Tulsa, guiding the Golden Hurricane to Final 16 appearances his last two seasons.

The 1996-97 season at Georgia was one his best coaching efforts. After losing eight seniors and all five starters from the year before, Smith led the youthful Dogs to a 24-9 record, equaling the school record for most wins in a season. UGA finished third in the SEC with a 10-6 record, just behind second-place Kentucky. And three of Georgia’s nine losses came against the Wildcats in ’97, including a 95-68 loss in the SEC Tournament Championship game. Georgia finished the year ranked 17th in the final AP poll and earned a No. 3 seed in the Southeast Regional.

In Smith’s first year in Athens, Georgia advanced to the Final 16, where his team lost to eventual runner-up Syracuse on a last-second shot. It was the Bulldogs’ first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years. His team ended the season 21-10 overall and 9-7 in league play for a second-place finish in the Eastern Division. In the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, eighth-seeded Georgia defeated No. 9 Clemson before toppling No. 1-seed Purdue to advance to the West Regional semifinals. There, the Dogs lost to Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen in what many labeled the best game of the 1996 tournament.

Before arriving in Georgia, Smith led Tulsa to a 79-43 (64.8%) record and won consecutive Missouri Valley Conference regular-season titles in 1994 and ’95. When he took over the Golden Hurricane in 1991, he had just five returning players. With a quick injection of new talent, he completed his first season by coaching Tulsa to the MVC Championship Game after finishing fourth during the regular season.

Following a 15-14 record in 1993, Tulsa won more than 20 games in each of Smith’s last two seasons, captured first-place honors in the MVC with identical 15-3 marks and made consecutive trips to the Sweet 16. He earned the MVC’s Coach of the Year award in both 1994 and ’95. In his final year at Tulsa, Smith led the Golden Hurricane to a 24-8 record, marking the third-highest victory total in school history, and a No. 15 ranking in the final CNN/USA Today poll.

Much of his success as a collegiate head coach has been measured by his teams’ performances in the NCAA Tournament. Smith’s 1994 Tulsa team upset UCLA in the tourney’s first round before knocking off Oklahoma State. In ’95, the Hurricane blew away Big-Ten power Illinois to open March Madness. His postseason success continued at Georgia where the Bulldogs defeated Clemson to open the ’96 tournament before upsetting the top-seeded Boilermakers.

Considered by many as one of the nation’s top coaches, Smith was selected to help coach the 2000 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team in Sydney. He served as an assistant to Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich as the Americans withstood high expectations to capture the gold medal.

Currently, he serves on the NCAA Committee to study basketball issues, joining Duke’s Krzyzewski and Oregon’s Ernie Kent. He serves on the National Association of Basketball Coaches Board of Directors and in June 2000, spoke at a Congressional hearing on the issue of gambling in college sports.

While he continues to make strides nationally in the sport of basketball, Smith’s first impact on the Bluegrass came nine years before his national championship. When Pitino took over the Wildcats’ program in ’89, he sought an assistant coach who knew the South, and one name continued to surface — Tubby Smith. Smith left his assistant coaching position at South Carolina and joined Pitino’s first staff, which had the dubious honor of rebuilding a UK program that had been rocked by NCAA probation and player defections.

With only eight scholarship student-athletes, none taller than 6-7, the staff molded the Cats into winners once again, exceeding expectations to record a 14-14 mark. The following year, with Smith promoted to associate coach and UK still on probation, the Wildcats earned a 22-6 record, a final ranking of ninth in the AP poll, and an SEC-best 14-4 record.

The members of those first two staffs that Pitino assembled formed an impressive group of future head coaches. Smith served alongside Ralph Willard of Holy Cross, North Carolina State’s Herb Sendek, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Bernadette Mattox, former coach of the UK women’s team, while the Wildcats began the rebuilding effort that culminated with two championships in three seasons.

Before coming to Kentucky in ’89, Smith was an assistant coach for George Felton (a former UK assistant – 1998-00) at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks notched a 53-35 record during his three years. Prior to his stop in Columbia, Smith served as assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth for seven years, including six seasons under J.D. Barnett. In those seven seasons, VCU registered a 144-64 record, won three Sun Belt Conference Championships and made five NCAA Tournament appearances. And under Barnett, Smith learned the principles of his ball-line defense, a defense that in three of his first four years at UK held opponents to their lowest field goal percentages since 1962.

Smith began his coaching career at Great Mills High School in Great Mills, Md., where he was head coach for four years and compiled a 46-36 record. His next stop came at Hoke County High School in Raeford, N.C., where he recorded a 28-18 mark in two seasons.

A 1973 graduate of High Point (N.C.) College, Smith was an all-conference performer as a senior. He played under three different head coaches at High Point, including Barnett, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in health and physical education.

Smith is the sixth of 17 children raised on a rural farm in southern Maryland. He and his wife Donna, have three sons: Orlando (G.G.), 27, and Saul, 25, are both pursuing careers in the coaching profession; and Brian, 19, just completed a year at Fork Union Military Academy.

Coach Smith is very active in the community. The Tubby Smith Foundation, which he established to assist underprivileged children, has raised over $1.5 million in the past five years.

In the summer of 2001, the United Way created a new award – The Donna and Tubby Smith Community Spirit Award. The Smith’s were the inaugural recipient of the award for their generous contributions. In 2001, their $125,000 donation made them the highest individual contributor to the United Way in the state of Kentucky. The award is given annually to those who effectively advance mobilization or collaboration to achieve positive impact that benefits the Central Kentucky community at-large.

Following the 2003 season, Smith, one of only six men to lead three schools to the Sweet 16, signed a new eight-year contract with Kentucky running through 2011. The new deal is worth at least $2.0 million per year, making Smith one of the highest paid collegiate men’s basketball coaches in the nation.

Smith led Kentucky to one national championship in 1998, a perfect 16–0 regular season conference record in 2003, five SEC regular season championships (1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005) and five SEC Tournament titles (1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004). Smith led the Wildcats to six Sweet Sixteen appearances (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005) and four Elite Eight appearances (1998, 1999, 2003, 2005) in his ten seasons. He totaled 100 wins quicker than any other Wildcat coach except Hall of Fame member Adolph Rupp and current Wildcat coach John Calipari, reaching the plateau in 130 games. Smith was named National Coach of the Year in 2003 and SEC Coach of the Year in 1998, 2003, and 2005.

Smith came under considerable pressure from many UK fans late in his tenure. Many thought that his recruiting was subpar, as he regularly struggled to land top recruits. Kentucky fans also became impatient that his teams never reached another Final Four during his tenure. Some UK fans went as far as to place “for sale” signs on his front lawn. Smith did come just a double overtime loss short of a Final Four appearance in 2005, losing to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans. Smith’s Kentucky teams also lost in the regional finals of both the 1999 and 2003 NCAA tournaments. Smith also had five double digit loss seasons (which led to his critics nicknaming him “Ten-Loss Tubby”), which caused the pressure to ramp up on him.  On March 22, 2007, Smith resigned his position of UK head coach to accept the head coach position at the University of Minnesota.

In his ten seasons at Kentucky, Smith led UK to an overall record of 263–83, for a winning percentage of .760.  In contrast, the coach Kentucky selected to succeed him, Billy Gillispie, went 40–27 for a winning percentage of .597, and missed the NCAAs in his second year.

In 2013, Smith was elected to the UK Athletic Hall of Fame.

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