Smith's adjustments paid off for Kentucky

October 30, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - It's what Tubby Smith did and what he didn't say that may have saved Kentucky last year.

During the Southeastern Conference Media Day here Wednesday, Smith admitted that his standard coaching procedure is a "get-in-your-face, intense" mentality to challenge players when things are not going well.

However, the Kentucky coach learned last year that was not the best way to handle his team when his passionate halftime talk backfired at Louisville. Rather than rally the Wildcats, UK crumbled and lost 81-63.

"I learned at the Louisville game that our guys were not going to respond (to his usual coaching method)," said Smith. "I had to change and got to practice changing my halftime speech after the Louisville game."


His gentler approach worked well in easy wins over Tennessee State, Alcorn State and Ohio. It was tested a bit more in the Southeastern Conference opener at Tennessee, but UK still won 74-71. However, he was ready to forget the new approach and revert to his "ranting" when Kentucky fell behind early at Vanderbilt and still trailed 36-28 at halftime.

"I was getting ready to rip somebody," Smith said.

Instead, he went into the coach's room before addressing his players. He saw a punching bag and some light gloves. Since he had always loved to box, he put on the gloves and "took all his frustrations out" on the punching bags with a series of blows.

"Then I went into the locker room and said, 'Fellows, I know we are better than this.' I became more of a cheerleader," Smith said.

It worked because UK outscored Vanderbilt 46-16 the second half. The Cats won their next 14 games to complete a perfect Southeastern Conference season and then won the SEC Tournament. They didn't lose until the fourth game of the NCAA Tournament.

Smith's players swore Thursday that they had no idea he hit a punching bag at halftime before talking to them at Vanderbilt.

"If that's what he said, I believe him," Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch said.

"He never told us that," teammate Chuck Hayes said.

Smith never told anyone one other thing - he also hurt his hand with his little escapade.

"It hurt around the knuckle for the rest of the season," Smith said. "It took me a long time to even figure out what I did to hurt my hand. Then it dawned on me. I won't be doing that again."

Dreaming: Since Smith has often had his name mentioned with NBA coaching vacancies, he was asked if he might one day take his success to the professional level, much like football coach Steve Spurrier did when he left Florida to coach the Washington Redskins.

"I don't have any great plays. I am not a genius like Steve Spurrier," Smith said. "He's very creative. Everything I get is old school.

"I desire to date Halle Berry, but I'm already married. We all have those fantasies, but we better wake up and realize there are some things we are not going to do. Coaching is a great profession. I never dreamed I would be a college coach. We just have to focus on what we are and if an opportunity presents itself, then be prepared to make a decision."

Number one: Kentucky was picked to win the SEC championship. The Cats were voted ahead of Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia and South Carolina in the Eastern Division. LSU was voted the best in the Western Division with Auburn second and Mississippi State third.

"Unless you are Kentucky or Florida, you play the spoiler in this league," Mississippi coach Rod Barnes said.

Florida's Bonnell Coles agrees that the Kentucky-Florida rivalry has become the best in the SEC as both teams are again expected to be among the nation's elite teams this season.

"We understand Kentucky is one of the better teams in the SEC," Coles said. "Knowing our program is trying to be as historic as Kentucky's, you have to go through Kentucky. We take it as another big game. We are not going to say it is just another game. It's another big game, which is different. It's a game we feel we have to win, but I'm sure Kentucky thinks the same."

Hayes was expecting media members to pick Florida to win the division as it did last year.

"It's really no big deal. It doesn't bother me where we are rated," Hayes said. "Our record from last year speaks for itself. We let our play do our talking."

Kentucky did that when it routed then No. 1 Florida 70-55 last year in Rupp Arena, a loss the Gators have not forgotten and are using for motivation this year.

"We are not going to lie. We played miserably in that game and Kentucky beat us soundly," Coles said. "That has stayed in the back of our minds. We know we have to get better this season before we get to Kentucky. It starts now, not in January. We can't just want to get better the week before we play Kentucky. It has to start in practice right now if we don't want Kentucky to beat us again."

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