Most of the college basketball programs known for their rich traditions have all faced at one time or another the challenge of having to replace a legendary coach. UCLA is a prime example, having to replace John Wooden who coached the Bruins to 10 National Titles. Nearly 40 years after his retirement, the Bruins still have not come anywhere close to replicating that magical era, having added only 1 banner since 1975. Things were perhaps marginally better at UNC with Bill Guthridge adding two Final Four banners to the trophy case when he replaced Dean Smith. However, he only lasted 3 years. And the post-Knight era at IU? All one needs to know about IU is, fourteen years and 4 head coaches later, the Hoosiers have all but disappeared from the national scene having won but 2 conference titles and no national crowns since 1987.
Kentucky of course, had the iconic Adolph Rupp who built the Kentucky Wildcats into a perennial powerhouse on the national scene. The former State College had been playing organized ball since 1903, but Rupp’s arrival in 1930 was the beginning of what is now the greatest tradition in college basketball. Rupp’s successor, Joe B. Hall, took on the monumental challenge of replacing this legend. I have long held the belief that Hall’s success has been greatly underrated, especially when you consider what a rare feat he accomplished: continuing and even building on the tradition established by Rupp.
Rarer still, though is that Kentucky had to replace another legend when Rick Pitino resigned from UK to return to the NBA. Pitino arrived in 1989 charged with the task of rebuilding the Kentucky Wildcats back into the national powerhouse they had been for several decades. Pitino not only met those expectations, but did so much more quickly than anyone could ever have imagined. Kentucky Basketball experienced a rebirth and quickly returned to national prominence with Pitino’s tenure ending with a National Championship and a National Runner-up finish.
Enter Orlando “Tubby” Smith, who had the unenviable task of following the “Camelot Years” of the Pitino era. Tubby enjoyed immediate success, taking the Cats to their 7th title in his first season as head coach. Three Elite 8 finishes and two Sweet Sixteens along with a .750 winning percentage in SEC play (including 16-0 one season) during his 10 seasons at the helm certainly indicate a strong follow up to Pitino’s body of work. And again, one must look at other programs who have failed to successfully replace one legend, much less two to fully appreciate Tubby’s achievements at UK.
So we have Hall and Smith, both replacing legendary coaches and both doing so successfully. But who had the more difficult task and who had the greatest measure of success? I’ve pondered that question many times over the years and it certainly makes for an interesting debate.
Both Hall and Smith were no strangers to UK Basketball when they were named as head coach. Hall served as an assistant under Rupp and had coached the freshman team, The Kittens. Smith had been an assistant under Pitino during Rick’s first two seasons. That gave both of them an advantage as they knew what was really involved with being the head coach at UK. You aren’t simply the coach at Kentucky. You are also an ambassador for the University and for the entire state. These men understood that and both did an admirable job in the ambassador role.
When Hall took over, the Cats had been in a National Title drought, not having won since 1958 with the Fiddlin’ Five. Each year, fans grew more anxious and wondered if Hall had what it took to take the team to the top of the mountain. Of course, he did just that in 1978. That team was expected to win and anything short of the championship would have been considered a failure for Coach Hall. Tubby, meanwhile, faced a different challenge: maintaining the success Pitino had enjoyed. Following up consecutive years in the Championship game was a tall order to fill. But Tubby took a team nobody expected to see in the Final Four and won the whole thing.
In 1972 when Hall became coach, there was certainly a lot of attention on Kentucky Basketball, but nothing that came close to the amount of coverage that came with the explosion of the internet as well as the coming of age of ESPN. Where Hall had to deal with a lot of print media, he had nowhere near the microscopic coverage endured by Smith. Numerous internet message boards gave the fans a voice they had not previously experienced. Factoring in the anonymity of those sites, people seemed to relish spewing venom at the coach and his family members over every perceived “failure.” The ESPN influence cannot be ignored either. Besides increased national coverage of games, there were also many programs devoted to sports commentary. Smith definitely had to live in a different public environment than did Hall.
When we compare the data side by side, it’s hard to select a clear winner between the 2. Both had 1 Championship, 3 Elite 8 and 2 Sweet Sixteen finishes. Hall does edge ahead with also having a Final Four and a Runner-up finish. However, Hall’s team did miss post-season play one season and lost in the first round of the NIT in another. Meanwhile, Tubby’s worst finish in the post-season was losing in the 2nd round of the NCAAs (four times). Overall winning percentages are not far apart either, with Hall holding a 297-100 record (.748) and Smith 263-83 (.760).
I shall continue to ponder this subject. One day I may decide who I think was more successful in their endeavor to replace a Kentucky coaching legend. In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the rich tradition of this storied Wildcat Basketball program. And when the day arrives for our next legend to be replaced, I know without a doubt Kentucky Basketball will sustain it’s winning tradition. After all, as Coach Cal has told us, “We don’t play college basketball. We ARE college basketball.”