GEORGETOWN — Former Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith returned to the area Monday night to be the guest in Georgetown College's ongoing series called "Interviews with Champions."
Smith clearly enjoyed himself as evidenced by his frequent smiles and lighthearted banter with host Billy Reed, audience members and even reporters.
"It's so good to be back in an area you have friends and familiar faces," he said.
The feeling was mutual. The audience came close to filling Georgetown's John L. Hill Chapel. By far the best attendance for any of the interviews, Reed said.
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The crowd — which included such former coaches as Don Lane, Mike Pollio and Mike Calhoun, plus UK athletics administrator John Cropp — treated Smith to a standing ovation when Reed introduced him. A few whistles of appreciation could be heard. Then when the 45-minute program ended, the crowd rose again to applaud the man who left UK for Minnesota four short years ago, saying at the time he was going where he was "wanted."
The circumstances of Smith's departure from UK went largely unexamined.
In speaking to reporters before entering the program's site, Smith pooh-poohed the notion that Minnesota fans are less demanding than Kentucky's.
"It's not different from anywhere," he said. "Adversity is the same, trust me, if you're not performing well on the job."
But with the audience listening to his conversation with Reed, Smith noted the unrelenting nature of UK basketball.
One reason he left UK after 10 seasons was because "it was time," he said. "If you're not careful, you can be consumed by it. I never wanted to be that way."
Calling Smith the "epitome of integrity and class," Reed asked the coach about the source of his values.
Smith cited family values, not the politically partisan version, but the kind instilled in a rural setting by parents and 16 siblings.
The coach noted how he had to draw water and feed hogs before dawn each day.
"Those are values you can't teach," he said. "You have to work. You're not going to eat until the garden is weeded."
Smith leavened the salute to his character and class with self-deprecating humor. When Reed and WKYT television General Manager Wayne Martin invited him to appear on the program, Smith recalled his reaction as, "Whoa, why me?"
To which Reed and Martin replied, "Coach, we want something light with really no meaning. And you come highly recommended," Smith said.
More seriously, Smith noted his successful fight against prostate cancer. The diagnosis came in 2010, a few months after golfing icon Arnold Palmer told him about his own fight with prostate cancer.
Smith said he hoped to raise awareness about prostate cancer.
The liveliest portion of the program came in the concluding question-and-answer session with audience members.
One student asked Smith whether so-called one-and-done players take something away from college basketball.
"We'd like some one-and-dones," Smith said. "They make you a much better coach."
Smith noted that college hockey players can leave at any point of the season for a professional team. "So we don't have it bad, at all," he said.
Another questioner asked whether Michigan State fouled Patrick Sparks on the three-pointer he made to send the 2005 regional finals into overtime. And, if the foul was called, would Smith still be UK coach? Michigan State won it in overtime.
"One official actually put his fist up (to signal a foul)," Smith said. "Then he put it down. (Sparks) should have shot a free throw, and game over."
The audience applauded the answer.
"Would I still be here?" Smith then said. "I don't know."