Big blues these days in Lexington


Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 9:40 a.m.
College athletics are loaded with loud, proud, demanding booster groups, all ravenous to experience abundant glory. Realizing national championships. Celebrating conference domination. Expecting their schools to constantly be afloat in the heavens of the highly ranked.
Gators. Sooners. Wolverines. Tar Heels. Trojans. Cornhuskers. Vols. Seminoles. Longhorns. Buckeyes. Blue Devils. Bulldogs. Nittany Lions. Tigers. Wolfpack. Huskies. Spartans. Crimson Tide. Hoosiers. Bruins. Hurricanes. Jayhawks. Irish.
We could list more.
But none among the fanatical foregoing - for deep, well-trophied history, 365/24 passions and pure outrageousness - has the feisty spice of University of Kentucky basketball followers. If you've not walked amongst Big Blue Nation, feeling the tremors, hearing the volatile rhetoric, sensing the suffocating pressure, please do not debate.
If you've been there, you know.
UK has delivered seven NCAA basketball championships and constant Southeastern Conference loftiness. But suddenly there is massive, chaotic Big Blue suffering. A state also known for bourbon, race horses and fried chicken teems with raging disappointment, blood-thirsty Wildcat analysis and piercing demands of coach Orlando "Tubby" Smith.
Going into last night's ESPN game at Georgia, the contemporary 'Cats were 10-6 with an 0-2 SEC record - both league slippages coming in Rupp Arena, against Alabama and a Vanderbilt program whose last previous Lexington win was in 1974.
"Pathetic. Wretched," wrote Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Jerry Brewer. "Disinterested. Disorganized. Dysfunctional." Smoldering ashes keep stacking. Kansas humiliated Kentucky, 73-46.
Some of the Wildcat victories were against non-mighties South Dakota State, Lipscomb, Liberty, High Point and Georgia State. Kentucky had to scramble at the end to survive longshots Ohio in Cincinnati and Central Florida at Rupp.
UK's sweetest moment was beating mega-loathed neighborhood rival Louisville and the 'Cats handled one other husky, West Virginia. Still, after generations of expecting to be called "champs," Big Blue could wind up in the discomforting role of "spoiler."
A multitude of critics is demanding that the 54-year-old Smith, sixth of 17 children of a Maryland family, be deported from Kentucky despite a 229-64 (.782) record for eight-plus seasons, adorned with five No. 1 finishes in the conference and a national championship in 1998.
Oh, they do go all the way.
Hazel Porter was a UK hoops nut. Dave Kindred of the Sporting News, a former Louisville journalist, recalls that when Hazel died, her request was carried out to have climactic moments of legendary Wildcats broadcaster Cawood Ledford's radio call of Kentucky's most recent national championship win played over the casket.
Until death they do...
In the sport of recruiting, a million Kentuckians consider themselves talent wizards. Everybody's a Mel Kiper. They assess young chaps from Atlantic to Pacific, checking out "prospects" as early as junior high. One of the wails against Smith involves his non-pursuit of Chris Lofton, a 6-foot-2 guard from Maysville, Ky., who now stars for SEC rival Tennessee.
Big Blue souls are stewing.
After all, this is UK, where basketball is religion and a coach is either victorious god or losing devil; no middle ground. Big Blue has endured few mediocre seasons since Herbert Hoover was president, though Rick Pitino did wobble to a 14-14 record not long before embracing UK's sixth national championship.
"After a memorable Pitino team was overcome by Duke and Christian Laettner's wonder shot in the 1992 NCAA East Regional, people around here immortalized that UK bunch as 'Unforgettables,' " said renowned writer Billy Reed whose career work has adorned Sports Illustrated as well as the biggest, best Bluegrass newspapers in Louisville and Lexington. "But the current Wildcats are being widely called 'Unwatchables.' "
Smith's job is tougher, more demanding than that of Notre Dame football leader Charlie Weis or North Carolina basketball boss Roy Williams or Florida's fledgling gridmeister Urban Meyer or any other coaching bloke you can name.
"UK people are fond of nicknaming favorite teams, like the 'Fabulous Five' of coach Adolph Rupp in the late '40s, then the 'Fiddlin' Five' and also 'Rupp's Runts,' " Reed said. "Maybe today's group should be called 'Tubby's Twerps.' None of them has a clue about chemistry. Including Tubby. No leaders. Nobody who understands that basketball is a lot more than a jacked-up three-point shot.
"No solutions in sight. All this has caused turmoil in the commonwealth. The hell with Iraq and Iran or Abramoff and Alito. It makes it worse for UK crazies that Pitino (after a failed Boston Celtics stab) resurfaced at Louisville and drifts blissfully along, with a phenomenal recruiting class on the way plus a $349-million arena in the works. There is loads of Pitino envy."
Florida coach Billy Donovan was a 1989-94 Pitino assistant at UK, on a staff that included Smith. While the 'Cats have struggled, Billy's Gators are 16-0 and ranked second nationally. "I know little about what is going on at Kentucky," Donovan said. "I've seen them play almost not at all. Tubby is a wonderful man and a terrific coach who will continue to succeed."
Concurrent with Blue Blue struggles, the movie "Glory Road" was released, recalling one of UK's less-joyous moments when Rupp's runtish, all-white 1966 squad was crushed by Texas Western (now UTEP) and coach Don Haskins' five black starters, permanently altering the course of basketball history.
"Good news for Tubby (first African-American coach at UK) is that its gives him some cover," Reed said. "Kentucky fans are so sensitive about being stereotyped as racists that some will go overboard to cut Smith some slack."
Tubby Smith is gasping for air.
You can reach columnist Hubert Mizell by e-mail at mizell3@cox.net

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