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Smith led Cats to an unlikely national title

(Editor’s note: For the next few months during our national coronavirus crisis, longtime sports columnist Jamie H. Vaught will be writing about the ex-Wildcats who were featured in one of his first four books on UK basketball, using excerpts that were published in his out-of-print volumes. His latest and fifth book, titled “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey,” was released in late February 2020.)

Orlando “Tubby” Smith, known for his down-to-earth demeanor, is still one of the most popular sports celebrities in Kentucky even though he has been away from his former UK head coaching position for 13 years.

In an interview for “Cats Up Close: Champions of Kentucky Basketball” book that was published in 1998, Smith – who won five SEC regular season titles, five SEC tournament crowns along with six NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and one national championship during his 10 seasons at Kentucky – admitted he was kind of surprised when his 35-4 Wildcats captured the 1998 Big Dance in San Antonio. It was the strong leadership exhibited by senior tri-captains Jeff Sheppard, Cameron Mills and Allen Edwards that propelled Kentucky, which eventually became known as the “Comeback Cats,” to win the NCAA title, according to Smith.

“The leadership that we had is the best leadership that I have ever been around in my 25 years plus as coaching and playing,” said Smith, who is now the head coach at High Point University, his alma mater, in North Carolina. “I’ve never seen a group of young men bond as well as this team. They really became a family led by Jeff Sheppard, Allen Edwards and Cameron Mills. Those three young men, I’ve really got to give them most of the credit.

“I’m sure there were times when (the players) were squawking and I’m sure there were a lot of negative things said at times. Guys concerned about playing time. But they all knew and understood their roles. I think they (the seniors) were able to help guys understand why we were doing things because they had been through so much.

“Look at the adversity that each one of these kids went through. Allen Edwards came here as a highly-recruited player and didn’t really get a chance to start. Then his mom got sick and passed away during the year. Cameron Mills had to walk on. He had to beg to come to school here. And look what he did now.

“Jeff Sheppard came here as a highly-recruited player and only averaged 13 minutes a game (as a junior). He has had to sit behind Tony Delk for three years. Also he had to sit behind Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson for a year. And then he redshirted because they were back again. He became the MVP in the Final Four. That’s a remarkable (feat).”

Earlier, during that memorable 1997-98 campaign, Smith decided to institute a new policy – no facial hair would be allowed – for the team shortly after a weak Louisville team outhustled and upset the Cats 79-76 during the holidays at Rupp Arena. The coach got the idea from his old college days when he was forced to shave his mustache.

“It seemed like we were losing some of our discipline and some of our self-discipline,” explained Smith, a former two-year assistant under coach Rick Pitino at Kentucky. “Guys were starting to wear beards this way and mustaches that way and just looked raggedly. So, I just felt like we needed more uniformity and more conformity. I just said it at the end of the game to get their attention. It was like an afterthought. I just said, ‘I want all the facial hair cut off. You guys look like a bunch of bums, hobos with your facial hair grown one way. I want it all off and that’s (for) everybody. If you don’t have it off tomorrow, don’t come back.’ ”

While the affected players expressed some displeasure with the new policy, it turned out to be a good disciplinary move by the coach as the Wildcats played well the rest of the campaign. “I could see that the guys had refocused and that the loss (to U of L) was behind us,” added Smith, who also began 6 a.m. practices after a loss to Ole Miss in mid-February.

Smith, who is a Methodist, credits much of his success and attitude to his church-going parents who taught the values of respect and hard work. (Since his head coaching stints at Tulsa, Georgia and then UK, Smith has served as the boss at Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis before ending up at High Point in 2018.)

Asked if his siblings tease him about his huge yearly salary of about $1.2 million at Kentucky, Smith replied, “No, not really. They don’t say (anything). I try to do as much as I can to help out mom and dad, and help my sisters and brothers. They know that money is not going to change me and it isn’t gonna change them. Because I have money, (that) is not going to make them any different or tease me any more.

“I think they are proud as I am of them that I’m successful and that I do have the opportunities to be visible and be in a leadership position. I’m always proud to mention them and give a lot of credit to what they have done to help me be who I am. So I’m trying to give back as much as possible.”

Smith, who will be 69 years old in late June, was raised in a very large family with 16 brothers and sisters on a rural farm in Maryland.

(Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including newly-released “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com)