When his turn at the microphone arrived Friday night, Tubby Smith elevated the Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame induction ceremony from the usual humdrum of jocularity and it-wasn't-just-me expressions of gratitude associated with such occasions.
The crowd of 250, which stood and applauded Smith's introduction as one of this year's six new inductees, grew silent as he recalled his 10 seasons as coach of UK's men's basketball team. Leaving the noting of accomplishments to others (the 1998 national championship, five Southeastern Conference titles), Smith commanded everyone's attention by mentioning who wasn't in this Lexington hotel ballroom.
John Stewart, the promising 7-foot recruit who collapsed and died in a high school game as Kentucky prepared to play an NCAA Tournament game.
"One of the toughest calls a parent or coach can get," Smith said.
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Marvin Stone, the former UK player who stirred a spat of outrage when he wanted to transfer to Louisville. Smith noted how he learned of Stone's sudden death shortly after being told that longtime equipment manager/UK basketball icon Bill Keightley had passed away.
Smith gently reminded listeners of Desmond Allison's murder.
Afterward, Smith said he thought to mention Stewart, Stone and Allison when he noticed how stars like Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans are remembered fondly. "They meant something to us, too," he said.
Among those Smith thanked — after the fans and players, but before administrators, professors and Rupp Arena personnel — were "outstanding assistant coaches" who served him at Kentucky. Reggie Hanson, David Hobbs, Scott Rigot, George Felton. More or less, these were the same assistants believed to have contributed to Smith's decision to leave for Minnesota in 2007 rather than make staff changes demanded by an ever-impatient Big Blue Nation.
Athletic banquets being what they are, the reflective mood quickly gave way to the customary light, fluffy and/or sentimental lite. Smith helped ease the way by mentioning his predecessors Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall and Rick Pitino. "I don't know if I can say Rick's name," he said. Sensing the all-clear, he said, "Whew!" The crowd laughed.
Smith's remarks came after the other inductees took a bow and addressed the crowd. They were defensive tackle Oliver Barnett, basketball star Rex Chapman, tennis All-American Jesse Witten, women's basketball standout Leslie Nichols-Carter and track coach Press Whelan.
Rod Sharpless, his defensive line coach at UK, introduced Barnett as "a warm-hearted person, a poor chess player and a big teddy bear."
Barnett recalled playing for an "old-school" coach like Jerry Claiborne. "All practices and drills were full-go," he said. "Take the receiver, running back and quarterback to the ground. I was fortunate I didn't suffer any serious injuries."
In his remarks ending the evening, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart referenced the football game against Florida Saturday evening in Commonwealth Stadium. "Oliver, can you suit up tomorrow?" Barnhart said. "We need you."
Actor Josh Hopkins likened his boyhood rooting interest in Chapman to Beatlemania. Chapman seemed a flawless hero. "Like he was built in a basketball lab," Hopkins said. "He had everything."
Chapman acknowledged the debt he owned to his father, Wayne, a college player in his own time and later a coach.
"Hit the genetic lotto," Chapman said.
Former UK tennis coach Dennis Emery noted how Witten had been one of only four players to reach a NCAA final as a freshman (John McEnroe was another).
Former teammate Sandy Harding saluted Nichols-Carter as the only player in UK women's basketball history to post a triple-double.
Whelan, a cancer survivor, had the best rags-to-riches story. When he became UK's track coach, it was a part-time position that paid $7,500 per year. Several of his former athletes were here to watch their coach take a bow.
Smith's brown/gray suit symbolized the sweeping arc that's part of Hall of Fame ceremonies. Of course, brown was the trademark color for Rupp, UK basketball's founding father.
"You may leave Kentucky," Smith said of his coaching career that now includes 11 stops. "But Kentucky never leaves you."
■ Oliver Barnett: Football player (1986-89)
■ Rex Chapman: Men's basketball player (1987-88)
■ Leslie Nichols-Carter: Women's basketball player (1983-86)
■ Tubby Smith: Men's basketball coach (1998-2007)
■ Press Whelan: Men's cross country and track athlete (1957-61) and coach (1967-73)
■ Jesse Witten: Men's tennis player (2002-05)