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'TUB-BY! TUB-BY:' UK, Rupp Arena fans honor Coach Smith

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Posted at 4:19 PM, Dec 31, 2021

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Even if you aren’t a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats, Friday’s New Year’s Eve celebration of Orlando “Tubby” Smith’s career in Lexington had to send chills down your spine.

A nearly packed house at Rupp Arena treated Friday’s game as merely a sidebar to the main event; chanting “Tub-by, Tub-by” as the university honored Smith for his 10 years of service by raising a jersey with his name to the rafters. He will forever sit alongside Rick Pitino, Joe B. Hall, and Adolph Rupp high atop the historic building on High Street.

“You know, it’s the number one program in the history of college basketball,” Smith said after this High Point University team lost to Kentucky. “That’s why it’s such a thrill and such an honor to be part of the legacy at Kentucky by having your banner raised,” he continued.

Smith’s tenure at UK is somewhat complicated. After taking over for Rick Pitino following the 1997 season, Smith won an NCAA Championship about 11 months later. But he never reached that height again, narrowly missing out on two additional Final Four appearances. He won five SEC regular-season championships, and five more conference tournament championships, and his teams were an annual staple in the Sweet 16.

But to BBN (Big Blue Nation), Sweet 16 appearances don’t cut it, no matter how much class and grace and dignity you exude while reaching that level. At one point towards the end of his tenure in Lexington, some fans posted a “for sale” sign outside his home. (The home wasn’t listed, but fans were hoping it soon would be). They got their wish. Following the 2007 season, Smith resigned to take the same job at the University of Minnesota.

Like a great artist, Smith’s accomplishments in Lexington weren’t fully appreciated until he was gone.

“Not just from a coaching standpoint and the success he had, but from a character standpoint. There was a sense of pride always when he was leading Big Blue Nation back then,” said Jason Engle.

Engle drove eight hours with his son to attend Friday’s game and ceremony.

“When we saw this was added to the schedule, I knew we wanted to come to this one,” Engle said.

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“It was a great hire at the time, and you could see how those players responded to him,” said Chris Adams, another fan who didn’t want to miss this ceremony.

Before the game, Smith came to the court and shook the hand of every employee at the courtside table. He chatted with Kentucky coaches and athletic officials before stopping to take pictures with fans.

When he returned for the pre-game jersey ceremony, he did so to a rousing ovation. Smith told the crowd this was his family’s first time back in Lexington since leaving and that he and his wife consider it their home still.

“I am humbled, and I am blessed,” he said of this honor. “To receive this type of welcome is heart-warming,” he added.

Many of Smith’s former players were on hand for the ceremony, and they hugged and embraced one another on the floor as if they had just defeated the Utah Utes all over again to win that national title.