Black and White? Only Bluegrass Matters


The truth of it is, Rick Pitino was the coach who didn’t really fit in Lexington, Ky.

The way he talked, the way he dressed, moved and thought were all, well, different. The people of Kentucky embraced Pitino--a retired jersey hangs from the rafters of Rupp Arena--because he won 219 games and gave the Wildcats their sixth NCAA title and nearly their seventh.

For all the talk about whether Tubby Smith would be accepted as the first black coach at a school that has found it difficult to shake the perception of a racist legacy, Smith is looking like a wonderful choice.

He has the gentle accent of rural southern Maryland, a thoughtful demeanor that is appreciated in those parts . . . and did we mention that the Wildcats are 15-2 and ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll, despite losing Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson to the NBA?


A loss to rival Louisville was not good, it’s true, and the early season rematch of the NCAA title game against Arizona didn’t go Kentucky’s way.

But a year after South Carolina stunned the Wildcats twice to sweep the season series, they handled the 14th-ranked Gamecocks, 91-70, this week and looked like Final Four contenders doing it.

Midway through the season, the Wildcats--a balanced team thriving on the continued emergence of forward Nazr Mohammed--are showing Smith’s stamp.

Would there be more of a racial undercurrent if he weren’t so clearly succeeding? Who knows?

“I don’t think Kentucky cares,” said Wildcat guard Cameron Mills, whose father played for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky in a very different era.

“There was a lot of media hype about the first black coach at Kentucky,” Mills said. “I think the people of Kentucky don’t care if the coach is black, white, Asian, Latino. They don’t care, as long as he wins.”


Smith, a former Pitino assistant who left Georgia to return to Kentucky when Pitino jumped to the NBA, understands that much of the reason Kentucky still battles perceptions of racism stems from the 1966 NCAA championship game.

Rupp sent an all-white team against a Texas Western team that started five black players, and in a milestone victory for integration, Texas Western--now Texas El Paso--won the game.

Smith, then a youngster in Maryland, wasn’t pulling for Kentucky that day.

“I saw it on TV. And it was in black and white back then,” he said with a little laugh. “I understand why it comes up. They beat them. A team starting all blacks, against a team that started whites. The fact that they were all black made a significant impact.”

Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson still swells with pride over Texas Western. He preceded that groundbreaking team at the school by a few years and was the only black player in his team picture.

“Coach [Don] Haskins literally changed things,” said Richardson, who like many people identifies Rupp with racism, despite protests by Rupp’s son, Herky Rupp, that his father was not a racist, pointing out that he tried to recruit Wes Unseld and Butch Beard.

“It’s what Mr. Rupp stood for in black people’s minds and hearts,” Richardson said. “I know the preamble to the Constitution says all men are created equal. Rupp, he called guys ‘coons.’ That’s what he stood for.”


Smith takes exception to that.

“Everybody stood for [racism],” he said. “Everybody in this country. I’m not going to hang it on Rupp. Hang it on everyone in this country.”

One point worth noting: Smith is not actually the first black basketball coach at Kentucky. That would be Bernadette Mattox, the Kentucky women’s coach.

“There are so many black players, coaches, administrators. But people still talk about it,” Smith said. “Why should it be a jolt?”

Richardson agreed.

“People still say, ‘He’s a black coach,’ instead of saying he’s a coach who happens to be black. It’s constantly the first to do this, the first to do that. After a while that starts to get old. You wonder when the time will come when he will be just a coach.”


One change for Smith when he moved from Athens, Ga., to Lexington was the preferred shopping destination for his wife, Donna, who traded trips to Atlanta for jaunts to New York.

“Somebody stole my credit cards a few months ago,” Smith joked. “I didn’t report it, because whoever is using it is spending less than my wife.”



After Rupp and Joe B. Hall and before Pitino, there was Eddie Sutton, responsible for 88 Kentucky victories in four seasons before things fell apart not long after an air freight package to Chris Mills’ father broke open.

Sutton is in his eighth year as coach at his alma mater, Oklahoma State--ranked No. 25 this week. He lost in a bid for the 600th victory of his career Wednesday against Missouri.

“This has been a lot of fun for me. This will be where I end my career,” Sutton said.

“Coming back here has been a real honeymoon, because Oklahoma State from the mid ‘60s until we got here was pretty mediocre in basketball. I think they got to one NCAA tournament. When we came back, we rekindled the spirit of Oklahoma State basketball.”

Kentucky basketball has been rekindled since the NCAA violations under Sutton, but under any circumstances, it can be a difficult place to coach.

“I told Tubby when he took the job, ‘You’ll find they have some of the greatest things a coach could ever want,’ ” Sutton said. “But there are a few things that are roadblocks and that’s what makes it really difficult.”

Yes, there is scrutiny and interference at Kentucky. When Smith mentioned to Richardson, the Arkansas coach, that 600 fans flew with the team to a Hawaii tournament, Richardson guffawed.


“Six hundred other coaches, you mean.”


Center Keon Clark, a probable NBA lottery pick, has made his season debut for Nevada Las Vegas, and teammate Kevin Simmons is eligible to play against UTEP on Saturday.

In addition, Cincinnati’s Ruben Patterson can return Sunday against Louisville.

With that, some of the most visible NCAA suspensions of the season will end--and their teams should be on the rise.

UNLV’s Clark and Simmons were penalized 11 and 14 games for accepting benefits from sports agents last spring.

The Rebels were a notch above .500 without them, but the losses were all to ranked teams: Kansas, Michigan, Rhode Island, Syracuse and UCLA.

Clark has scored 48 points in his first two games back, and with he and Simmons joining a front line anchored by Tyrone Nesby and freshman Kaspars Kambala, the Rebels still have time to make a run at their first NCAA appearance since 1991.

Cincinnati, another recent NCAA renegade with a sizable list of offenses, has gone 11-3 without Patterson, who was suspended 14 games for NCAA violations.


The Bearcats have been garnering votes in the Associated Press poll even without him and ought to break into the top 25 once he returns.


Barely a week ago, Florida State was hailed as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s third-best team, after North Carolina and Duke.

The Seminoles had a three-point loss to the Tar Heels that seemed to vouch for that, and had beaten Arizona and Connecticut.

Then Florida State lost to Maryland, Duke and Clemson in seven days and the Seminoles are last in the ACC at 1-4.

Other flops:

* Marquette, which started 10-0 and earned a top-25 ranking, lost three in a row to Alabama Birmingham, Cincinnati and UNC Charlotte.

* Miami, which made noise with a victory over Connecticut and had only one loss, then dropped back-to-back games to West Virginia and worse, St. John’s, with Syracuse up next.


What gives? Probably conference rivals’ familiarity with each other and a few swelled heads from early success. But don’t discount guard play--particularly for Marquette, which is reliant on Aaron Hutchins.


Is this the season of the blowout? Duke’s 32.5-point scoring margin leads five teams beating their opponents by an average of more than 20 points. Iowa, TCU, Mississippi and Xavier are the others. . . . Arkansas senior Sunday Adebayo has accomplished a rare triple, playing for the Razorbacks this season, the year after he played for Memphis, the year after he played for Arkansas. Adebayo transferred to Memphis because of an NCAA flap over eligibility at Arkansas but was allowed to return after the NCAA made another ruling. You’d have had to forgive him if he sat down on the wrong bench when the teams played last week. . . . There’s no secret to beating Washington: Stop 7-foot Todd MacCulloch. He averages 22 points in the Huskies’ victories, and nine in their losses.