Former UK player, information director fondly recall memories of Tubby Smith

Published 11:35 am Wednesday, March 1, 2023

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Jeff Sheppard was the most valuable player of the 1998 Final Four under coach Tubby Smith and was also part of Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team and the 1997 team that lost to Arizona in the national title game under coach Rick Pitino.

Brooks Downing was the UK sports information director from 1995-2003 under both Pitino and Smith. He started bd Global in 2012, a national sports marketing firm that puts on events like UK’s trip to the Bahamas in August.

Sheppard and Downing were at the recent celebration in Lexington for the 1996-98 teams. They also both agreed on the most memorable moment on the weekend filled with special times for players, coaches and others.

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“My favorite moment had to be when the fans started chanting, ‘Tubby, Tubby.’ He teared up and had to wipe his eyes,” Downing said about Smith’s introduction at Rupp Arena during halftime of UK’s win over Tennessee.

For Downing, that brought back memories of the Final Four in San Antonio in 1998.

“We had won the first game in the semifinals (against Stanford) and had media backstage and then CBS wanted to interview Tubby at halftime of the second game,” Downing recalled. “We had to escort around the Alamodome and he had not finished media until there were only three or four minutes left in the half.

“We had to get around the floor to the other end for CBS for the halftime interview. Half the crowd was UK and was chanting, ‘Tubby,’ as we walked. It was like walking with Elvis (Presley). That was such a cool moment in 1998 and then it happened again Saturday. I just loved that.”

Sheppard enjoyed the “huge ovation” that Smith got because he “deserved” it, according to his former player.

“Coach is kind of transitioning to a season of retirement for himself. He is seeing everybody come full circle and reflecting on a lot of things,” Sheppard said. “He ran around the country his whole life coaching, recruiting, playing games. It was one school to the next. He’s had a life of college basketball as a player and coach.

“Now he is a senior mentor and father figure or even a grandfatherly spiritual father to so many of us. It’s a new time for him. Tears were appropriate. It just shows his love for Kentucky basketball and the fans obviously still have a lot of love for him.”

Sheppard said Smith was a great teacher/mentor for him during the 1997-98 season when he took over as head coach after Pitino left for the NBA.

“Coach Smith is one of the most humble men that I know. There is an appreciation for how he taught the game of basketball and the way he taught us to treat people and appreciate things and live in the moment and fight and take care of family,” Sheppard said. “Those things were important to him.

“He did not just say it with words, but he lived it out in front of us every day. Even when he was honored and appreciated, he was still teaching us and showing us how to react in those situations.

“He’s just a wonderful teacher and man. It was wonderful to be able to sit under his leadership the one year I did, and I truly love and respect that man more than I could ever explain. That’s why it was so nice to see him appreciated the way he was.”