This 1997 column for the Lexington Herald-Leader landed me a televised interview on ESPN and several interviews with sports radio shows that served SEC country. It's about when the University of Kentucky was then-considering hiring Tubby Smith to be its first black basketball coach. There was a lot of hand-wringing at the time about whether UK basketball was ready for a black head coach. Fellow journalists seemed to particularly like the second sentence, which answered the questioned I posed in the first. I was also surprised by the degree of support received from UK fans.
Now, here, this school, this Lexington
May 9, 1997, Friday
By Robert Campbell
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Is the state ready for a black head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky?
Anyone white who says "no," believing that UK basketball is a white institution, is either a racist or has a bunch of racist friends and associates. It's as simple as that.
Anyone black who says "no, and I don't want to talk about it," believing that UK basketball is still the white man's team, needs to recall the truly great sacrifices made by our forebears.
Kentucky's next basketball coach could easily be a black man.
Orlando "Tubby" Smith, the head coach at the University of Georgia and likely candidate to replace Rick Pitino, is black.
I believe Kentucky is ready (regardless of whether most Kentuckians themselves realize it) because Big Blue fans don't seem to have a problem with having all those talented black ball players coming to the Bluegrass State to help put UK basketball back on the map.
Saying that blacks are good enough to play at UK but not serve as the team's head coach is like saying it's OK for blacks to work as servants at a club but not become members. While I know that's still the case at some places (some right here in town), I do not and will not accept that with regard to a public institution.
UK is a taxpayer-funded institution. It's owned by "we the people," which includes black folks, white folks and everyone in between.
The same thing goes for UK basketball. In fact, I don't know of a bigger UK fan than my barber, a native Kentuckian who's black.
Furthermore, there's not a better college basketball program in the country. If Smith thinks he can do the job, I say go for it, brother.
Now, whether Kentucky is sophisticated enough to accept a black person at the helm of its most revered institution is certainly a fair question.
UK has a racist past. And some say the past isn't even the past in that respect.
Nor is Lexington the most hospitable of places. It can be a particularly lonely place for transplanted black professionals, at least for those who aren't former star athletes at UK. (It's easier for those of us who are married than those who are single, however.)
Lexington is a cliquish, old money, good ol' boy (and gal) kind of town. And that can cause more than a few home-grown whites, especially those with a little money, to pause when they see a black person in their midst who isn't wearing a black vest, bow tie and white shirt.
I can only imagine what the atmosphere must be like in some of the circles Smith would encounter if he became the head basketball coach at UK.
Sure, it bothers me – a lot – that Smith might be treated differently than a white coach, even if he's successful. Smith will have to be twice as good as Pitino to garner the same level of respect. He probably won't get anywhere near the number of endorsement contracts that Pitino had.
No, Smith probably won't have an easy start should he become UK's first black head coach. But that's no reason for him not to give it his best shot should the ball come his way. If it isn't someone with Smith's credentials, then who? If not now, when?
Obviously, Smith will be expected to run a clean program and win games – lots of them. If he doesn't, he will be criticized.
But if Smith is mistreated solely because he's black or isn't welcomed into this community in the same fashion accorded to other UK basketball coaches, then it's our job – especially those of us in the media and white leaders – to speak out and demand fairness.
Because the shame will fall on Kentucky, not Smith. And that could result in top players of every race choosing to play their college ball elsewhere.
This could be your chance, Kentucky. Don't blow it.
(Robert Campbell is an editorial writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Write to him at: Lexington Herald-Leader, 100 Midland Avenue, Lexington, Ky. 40508.)
(c) 1997, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.).
Bob Campbell, an essayist and novelist, likes his bourbon neat. His debut novel, Motown Man, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in November 2020.