Friday, March 19, 1999

Rabid fans' expectations put Smith under pressure

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Coach Tubby Smith 'defends' Wayne Turner during Thursday's workout.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        ST. LOUIS — Bill from Paducah is on the horn, questioning the substitution pattern. Now it's John from Cynthiana, screaming, “What's wrong with the Wildcats?” Next up, Larry in Lexington:

        We need a new coach!

        Welcome to Kentucky basketball fandom. Hold your ears.

        “The problem with Kentucky fans is they think they should go undefeated every year,” Ralph Hacker says. “Expectations are always unrealistic.”

        Hacker, who has broadcast UK basketball games for 27 years, hears the hysteria each week hosting the Big Blue Line call-in show. UK coach Tubby Smith is the frequent target.

        Smith has led UK (27-8) to the Midwest Regional semifinals, where it meets Miami University (24-7) tonight in the Trans World Dome. If the fans are back on his bandwagon, it's only temporary.

        “I imagine any coach in a major program feels that kind of pressure from the fans,” says Joe B. Hall, who coached UK to a 297-100 record from 1973-85. “Not even if you've won the national championship the year before, won 20-some games and are 14-0 in the postseason are you exempt.”

        He was describing Smith, who has been perfect in the postseason in two years at UK. But he could be describing his own reign, which included three Final Four appearances and the 1978 national title. Or even that of coaching legend Adolph Rupp, who made UK a national power and won 876 games in 42 years.

        “It's a religion to these fans,” says Bill “ Wildcat” Keightley, the team's equipment manager the past 37 years. “They think no one else plays this game.

        “The last 11 years Coach Rupp was here, if he lost seven or eight games, they said, "He's too old.' Someone else comes along, they say he's not good enough. Rick (Pitino) was successful here, but they said it was just because he had great talent.”

        Smith had been a UK assistant from 1989-91, so he knew the scrutiny the job included. Last year, in his first season as UK's coach, he aged noticeably during the season, flecks of gray spreading outward from his temples.

        When he delivered an improbable NCAA championship, becoming just the fourth coach in history to win a title in his first year at a school, he became a state hero. That lasted until UK's first slump this winter.

        The bandwagon emptied.

        “Basketball is something I love doing, so I never look at it as pressure,” Smith says. “We realize how important basketball is to everyone in the state of Kentucky. It's a real love affair.”

        When you win.

        UK lost eight regular-season games this year, as many as the team totaled the past two years combined, and Smith's critics roared. But the master plan looked brilliant when UK won the Southeastern Conference Tournament and won two NCAA Tournament games last week, including a thrilling comeback against perennial power Kansas.

        “As long as he's winning, those people who were against him will be there cheering,” Hacker says. “They're all there until the next loss. Whenever that comes — against Miami, or not until next season — they'll be screaming until he gets it going again. It's a cycle.”

        Outsiders shake their heads.

        “I was in Memphis, and they were barbequeing my man Tubby on the radio,” Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said two weeks ago. “I mean, the man just won a national championship, and they're ready to run him out of town. I wish they'd run me out of town with the record he's had.”

        ESPN analyst Dick Vitale knows the fishbowl is smaller in Lexington than elsewhere.

        “The people get spoiled, and expectations run wild,” he says. “Some times it's not fun for the (players). When they win, they're told they're not winning by enough. That really disturbs me.”

        “Fan psychology can be very interesting,” Hall says. “People often take it too hard. Sometimes I think they get too close, and need to back away for awhile.”

        Talk radio doesn't help. After a loss to Louisville dropped UK to 10-3, one talk-show caller said he would trade UK's NCAA championship for a win over UofL. Though the silent majority might be content, the outspoken minority skew perceptions about UK's fan base.

        “Sometimes talk shows give voices to anonymous people who shouldn't have the right to a public platform,” Hacker says.

        It's been a tough season for Smith. He had to hand down early-season suspensions to three players, discipline a few others for curfew violations, see sophomore Myron Anthony leave the team in December, and digest the death of UK recruit John Stewart last week.

        “All those things were distractions to the team,” he says. “We were able to overcome that and refocus our attention. We're playing better.”

        Those who know him know fans won't get the best of him. They aren't whom he serves.

        “His first concern is to help older boys become young men, to provide a family-type atmosphere that will help them grow,” says Smith's son, Saul, a UK sophomore guard. “Winning games and championships is secondary.”


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- Rabid fans' expectations put Smith under pressure