LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kentucky's search for a new basketball coach was abnormally narrow and admirably broad-minded.
Tubby Smith, the black coach of the University of Georgia, was the only candidate considered. His skills were every bit as obvious to UK Athletic Director C.M. Newton as is the color of his skin, and neither posed an obstacle in the hiring process.
This, friends, is progress. It is not the finish line on the road to racial equality, but it is an important landmark nonetheless. Fairly or not, few institutions in American society have been as tightly linked with segregation as UK basketball.
Tubby Smith renders UK's racist past a tale for the history classes, and removes it from the realm of current events. He shows the school's capacity for enlightenment, and he now has the chance to promote tolerance and compassion throughout the Commonwealth.
UK basketball is not sport so much as religion, and its high priest's clout carries far beyond his clipboard.
"This is not going to fix everything wrong with society," said P.G. Peeples, President of the Lexington Urban League. "But it certainly helps."
Tubby unanimously approved
Rick Pitino's replacement was approved by a unanimous vote of UK's Athletics Association Monday afternoon. The meeting was a formality, and yet also memorable.
The motion to hire Smith was made by Sanford T. Roach, formerly the basketball coach of Lexington Dunbar High School. Roach, 81, is an African-American, with memories familiar to men of his race and his generation.
Roach once obtained front-row seats to watch UK play Temple at Memorial Coliseum - this would have been 1955 or 1957 - only to be informed by UK Athletic Director Bernie Shively that he would have to sit further back or be removed from the building.
Roach was happy, he said Monday, to have lived long enough to see this day.
"It's an honor to be (UK's first) black," Tubby Smith said, "But it's more important that I be competent; that I be judged by the content of my character and not the color of my skin."
The last phrase is borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the concept is as commendable as when King uttered those words at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Yet the sad truth is that reality does not yet reflect King's vision.
Tubby Smith has succeeded brilliantly at Tulsa and Georgia - his last four teams have reached the NCAA Tournament, and three of them have advanced to the Sweet 16 - but he recognizes that he must prove himself from scratch at UK. In his opening remarks Monday, Smith acknowledged that Newton needed not only confidence but "courage" to make this hire.
AD Newton ignores bigots
Courage is a virtue more widely perceived than practiced - witness how often it is cited during the Oscars - but Newton has clearly stuck his neck out some for the sake of social engineering. Only last week, in an open letter to Smith, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader said Kentucky fans were not ready to accept a black head coach.
"I sincerely fear for your safety and the safety of your family if you agree to become head coach," wrote Merlene Davis, who is black. "I am not interested in using you as a social symbol or proof of what the black man can accomplish given the opportunity. Nor am I interested in seeing you transformed into a lightning rod for this state's bigots."
This overlooks the obvious - that the head basketball coach at Kentucky is a lightning rod regardless of his race. Had Rick Pitino failed to win an NCAA Championship, he might have left Lexington remembered as the coach who didn't know enough to defend an inbounds pass against Duke.
Race notwithstanding, Tubby Smith has a hard act to follow, and a public impossible to please.
"If he wins, he will be accepted," P.G. Peeples said. "If he loses, he will take the wrath of those people who love Kentucky basketball. You must remember, even when Rick was winning the national championship, people got angry with him about the color of the uniforms."
IT'S TUBBY, NOT RICK II
RECRUITING TUBBY'S FIRST DUTY