Vaught's Views: UK coach understands tough love

February 24, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

During his playing career at Kentucky, senior point guard Cliff Hawkins readily admits there have been plenty of times where he's had a "love-hate" relationship with coach Tubby Smith.

"He expects nothing but the best. If you are not giving your best, he gets on you," said Hawkins. "But he's made me get better, and I appreciate that."

Smith's "tough love" can be evident during a game. His glare and foot stomp are legendary. He's been known to bench a star player for a mistake as quickly as he would the team's 10th man.

Yet if Smith has a weakness, it has always been that he may have too soft a heart. Sometimes it seems like players take advantage of his kind, gentle nature.


Remember Team Turmoil from two years ago? Guard Gerald Fitch was suspended three different times that year. It would have been easy for Smith to give up on him. Instead, he's turned into Kentucky's leading scorer and a productive player the last two years.

Smith did have to ask several players to leave the team, but even then it was not easy for him to do because he often thinks with his heart, not his head, when it comes to personnel issues. However, perhaps now for the first time I can understand why Smith has a soft spot for youngsters who make mistakes and is always looking to give them a second chance to atone for their mistakes.

Smith offered this insight recently when asked about the "tough love" he has shown Hawkins, Keith Bogans and other UK players.

"I loved my Dad, but I did not like the idea that he beat and spanked me," said Smith. "I thought he was a mean man. But thank God he did those things. A lot of kids miss that today and don't get the guidance they need if they mess up."

Apparently a spanking would have been a blessing for Smith because when asked what he did to get spanked, he quickly said, "They were beatings."

He seemed to understand his father had to rule with an iron fist

Not that Smith was accusing his father of abusing him. Instead, he seemed to understand that his father had to rule with an iron fist to make sure his large family was properly taken care of.

Smith still remembers the "beating" he got after his father's favorite rabbit hound died when he was supposed to be taking care of him while his father was out of town.

"That was the first time I saw my Dad cry," Smith said. "I forgot to feed and water the dog. The dog tried to get out and caught his head and snapped his neck. My Dad came back, and I thought one of the kids died. He beat me all day. But it was my fault."

There were other times when Smith was not only supposed to help cultivate a field, but he was also responsible for making sure his younger brothers and sisters did their work. Sometimes, Smith would only do half a row or alternate where he pulled weeds. That made it impossible for his father to correctly finish his work

"His theory was that he could not go halfway down a row with his tractor and then turn it around because my work wasn't done. I didn't get all my rows done before he got ready to cultivate," Smith said. "That was a mistake."

Smith said his father again "beat" him.

"I did not think I needed a beating because I still did more than the rest of them. I had three rows, the rest of the kids just had one," Smith said. "But he didn't see it that way, even though I was not more than 12 or 14."

Smith learned to do what he was told. When he became a sports star, he never thought of questioning a coach's authority. No matter what a coach told him to do, he did it because that was the way he was raised.

Don't get Smith wrong. He loves his father dearly today and worries about him. He says helping his father build a house when he was 16 or 17 years old enabled him to appreciate his father more and what it took for him to provide for his family.

Smith would never strike a player. I can't imagine him verbally abusing any player. He'll criticize a player, and his glare can put fear into the heart of any Wildcat, but there's no way he would physically abuse a player.

"You try to lead guys by example, or find somebody on your team who can," Smith said.

Smith's leadership example is his fairness. Players may want to play more, but they should know that their coach is a fair man because those harsh lessons his father taught him years ago helped him grow into a disciplined, caring man who also happens to be a winning basketball coach.

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