The roots of Kentucky's present-day success in basketball reach deep into southern Maryland soil, where Coach Tubby Smith learned life's lessons on the five-acre farm that provided for him and his 16 brothers and sisters.
Smith learned the importance of doing his own job well by tending the row of beans his father assigned him. He learned the value of patience from digging and storing each season's crop of potatoes. He learned the virtue of sharing over a crowded dinner table. And he learned the art of nurturing by raising baby chickens, gently holding their tiny heads in water until they figured out how to drink on their own.
All these things, Smith recalls, weren't so much taught as self-evident to a child growing up in a world in which nature dictated the tempo, and the needs of the family took precedence over the wants of the individual.
Decades later, they form the foundation of his approach to college basketball. And with those ingredients -- combined with an unshakable faith in hard work and hard-nosed defense -- Smith has pulled off arguably the biggest turnaround of the 2002-03 season.
Less than three months ago, Kentucky's rabid basketball boosters were calling for Smith's job after three early-season losses, including a calamitous collapse to in-state rival Louisville. Today they're screeching themselves hoarse with chants of "Tub-by! Tub-by!" now that the Wildcats finished 16-0 in Southeastern Conference play, own the nation's longest winning streak (25 games) and look like prohibitive favorites to win the school's eighth (and Smith's second) NCAA championship.
"He has done a coach-of-the-year type job," says former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who succeeded the legendary Adolph Rupp. "You have your doubters after every loss -- especially to Louisville. That was a bitter pill. But he brought this team together after a period in which they were troubled and molded them into an excellent offensive and defensive unit."
Still, given the manic expectations of Kentucky fans, it's unclear whether even the school's eighth NCAA championship would bring the recognition his peers say is due.
Smith earned his way to 100 victories at Kentucky faster than any coach in school history except Rupp. And his winning percentage with the Wildcats (.779) is even better than the storied program's itself -- at .764, the highest in college basketball history.
Smith delivered Kentucky's seventh national championship his first season on the job. Still, some critics carped that it was earned on the talents of players recruited by his predecessor, Rick Pitino, who left the Wildcats for an ill-fated stint with the Boston Celtics. This season, with a group of players who aren't nearly as gifted, Smith appears on track for yet another NCAA title. His Wildcats manhandled IUPUI and Utah, their first- and second-round opponents, by 31 and 20 points, respectively. Fifth-seeded Wisconsin is next.
Much like Smith himself, this Kentucky squad is winning in throwback style.
The 2002-03 Wildcats are grounded in values of old, with players who share the spotlight rather than vie for starring roles on highlight footage; players who work hard rather than assume all it takes to win is putting on a Kentucky uniform and showing up; and players who do the unglamorous things that require grit and effort -- such as rebounding and defending -- with more zeal than they shoot or dunk.
"I think Tubby Smith deserves more credit than anyone in the nation," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo says. "He took a team that had some great players and said, 'We're not going to play the great-player way. We're going to play the way I want to play, with toughness.' And their defense turned up four notches after Christmas."
The catalyst was the 81-63 loss to Louisville on Dec. 28 -- a rivalry loss made even less palatable because the Cardinals are now coached by Pitino, viewed as a turncoat in Lexington. Afterward, talk radio switchboards and Internet chat rooms lit up with demands for Smith's ouster.
The criticism, Smith insists, didn't affect him.
"I've always been able to block out things that are not positive," says Smith, 51. "Even when it's a negative, I don't even recognize it. That's how I survive."
But the loss did prompt him to re-examine his methods. And he concluded he was investing too much time during practice in the new offense he'd been trying to install. So he went back to the fundamentals, drilling his players relentlessly in passing, rebounding, defensive skills and, above all, selflessness. The Wildcats haven't lost since.
"It starts with respect: Respect of your teammates, respect of the game," Smith says. "Or you might say, good manners. Not that they have to say, 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir.' But it endears you to your teammates when you're willing to do for them -- to sacrifice for them. That's our mantra: If you do this for Keith Bogans, he's going to want to do this for you. He wants to see you do well."
On court, that translates to making the extra pass instead of taking the shot, or setting the screen so someone else can score. But Smith admits the strategy isn't easily embraced by players who've grown up in the self-indulgent game that's so popular today.
"People live to make the highlight reel," Smith admits. "So we try to say, 'Guess what? We all are going to be on the highlight reel if you don't care who gets the credit.' It's something I've always known because I was fortunate enough to have 16 brothers and sisters and grow up in a household where you didn't have a lot, and you shared everything you had."
Selfishness on court hasn't been the only hurdle.
The Wildcats opened the season still smarting from the pruning job Smith had done on last season's roster. The team was loaded with talent but self-destructed with jealousy, infighting and bad behavior.
Bogans, the gifted DeMatha guard, tried so hard to impress NBA scouts his junior year that he lost his shooting touch. Back-court mate Gerald Fitch got suspended three times -- for missing a curfew, fighting with a teammate and using a fake ID to get into a bar. And four players, including the highly recruited Jason Parker and Rashaad Carruth, were dismissed, prompting the local media to dub the 2001-02 Wildcats, "Team Turmoil."
Smith shoulders much of the blame, saying he invested too much time as an assistant on the 2000 U.S. Olympic basketball staff and too little time getting to know Kentucky's new class of recruits. But he meted out discipline, players say, with a firm and even hand.
"He knows that most of the time when we're wrong, we know that we're wrong," said forward Erik Daniels, who opened the season with a four-game suspension. "So we kind of just take the punishment and move on."
Still, Smith's every misstep and the team's every loss were scrutinized and second-guessed with venomous intensity, as is custom among Kentucky fans.
"Basketball to the people in Kentucky is kind of a life-and-death thing," says junior guard Matt Heissenbuttel, a walk-on from Lexington, Ky. "When we're winning, they're happy. When we're losing, they want him gone, and they want somebody else. It's a tough situation to be in because you have to win. There is no other option. Winning is the only option."
Says J.D. Barnett, who coached Smith at High Point and hired him as an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth: "I don't think he and his staff have been appreciated the way they would have been if they had been at another institution because there is such a high level of expectation. Tubby was a very unselfish player. He was never one to look for his own shot and be a one-on-one player. And his Kentucky team is the epitome of unselfishness as far as getting the ball to the open man, getting the ball in the paint and making the extra pass."
Today, Smith, who coached at North Carolina's Hoke County High School from 1977 to '79, characterizes himself as a teacher more than a coach, and he says that's all he has wanted to be since he was in seventh grade. And he insists he would be just as proud of his accomplishments if they were achieved in Hoke County as in the highly competitive SEC.
But the fact that he has done so at Kentucky, the last major college to integrate its basketball team, is no small matter. As the first African American coach to follow the segregationist Rupp, Smith is proud of the accomplishment yet more comfortable pointing to his mentors -- George Raveling, Nolan Richardson, Clarence "Big House" Gaines and John Thompson -- as pioneers in the game.
He refers to himself as "Joe Bag-of-Doughnuts, trying to make a dollar." And his methods at the top of college basketball's pyramid aren't far removed from tiny Scotland, Md., even if his players' eyes glaze over from time to time when he talks about hog-killing time, raising chickens or weeding the garden.
"One thing I tell them about is not rushing, not being in a hurry. And we try to play that way: under control," Smith says. "But today, it's, 'How quick can we build the house? What's the shortcut, Coach? Read the Cliff Notes!' That's why I tell the fellas, 'You couldn't rush the crops in the field.' And it's why I tell them, 'We dug all the potatoes, but we couldn't eat all the potatoes right then. We had to put some in the cellar.'
"It's hard for kids to see. But the fruits of your labor . . . it's a long process."