Thirty-two seasons ago, college basketball dramatically evolved with a landmark national championship game. Kentucky, a long-running phenomenon under coach Adolph Rupp, had its usual NCAA contender. As always, an all-white team.
But on a historic night in College Park, Md., the Wildcats were humbled 72-65 by a non-celebrity program from Texas Western. Every kid who started for coach Don Haskins was black.
UK was indelibly affected.
So was all of NCAA World.
That was a third of a century ago. So much has changed. Texas Western became University of Texas-El Paso. Haskins is still there. Kentucky eventually broke the color line. Big Blue was no longer exclusively Big White. Rupp died. So did a lot of antiquated ways. Kentucky won a fifth national championship in 1978 under coach Joe Hall, then made it six in 1996 with Rick Pitino.
But now the cycle seems complete. Pitino, while swearing he wasn't "going for the money," left UK to coach the Boston Celtics for a $7-million salary. Back in Lexington, transition for Wildcats basketball was headed for new significance. Named as boss in the wondrous old shop of Rupp and Pitino was Orlando "Tubby" Smith.
"I think the issue of race is always going to be tough," Smith said recently. "My goal is to get it to the point where people in our society won't be prejudiced because of color, creed, national heritage or religion. We're moving in that direction, although not as fast as some would like."
You love an idealist/dreamer.
Tubby Smith will succeed at UK, just as he did at the universities of Tulsa (79-43) and Georgia (45-19). Whether he has juice enough to quench the world's thirstiest basketball throats, we'll come to know.
So far Tubby is feeling nothing but Bluegrass love. But his Big Blue record is 0-0. My guess is Kentucky zealots will treat Smith much as they did Pitino, Hall and Eddie Sutton: with the ultimate in expectations and a thimble of patience.
"It helps a lot that I spent two seasons as a Pitino assistant (1989-91) before getting a head coaching opportunity at Tulsa," said the 46-year-old native of Scotland, Md. "I'm not scared, I'm challenged. At both Georgia and Tulsa, part of my duty was to create wider interest in our team and encourage people to come to games. Nobody needs to do that at UK."
Tubby is the sixth of 17 children. Raised in rural Maryland. In 1973 he became a coach at his alma mater, Great Mills High School. Went from there to Hoke County High in North Carolina. Then came a breakthrough, a seven-year experience as an assistant coach of a major NCAA program at Virginia Commonwealth.
He continued paying dues as a University of South Carolina assistant to George Felton, who is now on Smith's staff at UK. But the true launching pad for Tubby would be Kentucky, where he endured Pitino's tough Lexington beginning before moving on to Tulsa.
Kentucky had been shattered by NCAA probation and player defections. Pitino had only eight scholarship athletes his first season, none taller than 6 feet 7. Wildcats fans were savvy enough to understand the quandary. For a rare time, they were patient. Pitino, with Smith at his side, went 14-14 in 1989-90, and Rupp Arena cheered them.
After that, Little Ricky's operation began to escalate rapidly. Tubby was gone. UK won the national championship in 1996 and made it back to the NCAA final last spring, losing to Arizona.
"I always used to get goose bumps," Smith said of his Rupp Arena times as Pitino's sidekick. "Now it'll be goose mountains. We just want to keep the same mystique alive."
When he left Tulsa for Georgia, Smith figured it could be a long-running gig. He had two 20-win seasons. Georgia was thrusting basketball higher into the consciousness of a renowned football school. His son, G.G., signed to play point guard. But then Pitino got his $7-million job. Kentucky contacted Tubby. It was a higher calling.
G.G. still plays at G-Georgia.
"UK is a special place," Tubby Smith said, "perhaps like no other. Expectations are enormous, but so are the possibilities."