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We're Talking "Tubbyball"

Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Staring out into the vast emptiness that is the South Plains region that surrounds Lubbock, Texas, the weathered and well-traveled soul of Orlando "Tubby" Smith must have both ample time and space for reflection. More accurately, this setting in all its boundless vacuity must make a man turn inward for introspection to explore the infinite expanses of one's own being to ask the unanswerable question:

How did I end up here?

How did this man go from being the boss of the bluegrass to the head hombre of the Llano Estacado? Surely a man of this vintage who's breathed the air at the summit of the sport must have been destined for more, for better.

Forced out of Lexington for not meeting the impossibly high standards of Big Blue Nation, Smith is best defined as the quintessential college basketball nomad. It's almost poetic really. This drifter of a man who's spent time in Tulsa, then Athens, Georgia, the aforementioned state of Kentucky and then Minneapolis, turned up in the Southwest, where at 63, he'll likely live out the rest of his coaching days. It's almost like it's straight out of a Waylon Jennings song.

Tubby Smith's life as a head coach, while accomplished, is equally tragic. By any measure, Smith is (or at least should be) considered one of the most successful coaches in college basketball. He's won 535 games as a head coach, taken four different schools to the NCAA Tournament and was even selected to serve as an assistant for the U.S. Olympic men's team that won a gold medal in 2000 in Sydney. Since 1979, he's always had steady work in the college game and has been a head coach every year since 1991.

Yet for all this man has achieved, he'll never shake the labels with which he's been assigned, unfair as that may seem. He's a sympathetic figure that became a victim of his own success, except his short comings and failures were magnified by coaching in the most frenzied and fanatical environment imaginable, which wore at him so mercilessly that he willingly stepped away from his seat among the titans of college basketball.

I don't know that Smith has closure now, nor can anyone but Tubby himself ever know if closure is even possible from such a parting. Even nearly eight seasons removed from his dissolution with the Wildcats, it's nearly impossible for a telecast to air free of mentions of his past, both at Kentucky and at Minnesota.

Extending the point, it's noteworthy that in Smith's final season with both the Wildcats and Gophers, he not only led his team to the NCAA tournament, but also won a game. Sometimes, your best just isn't good enough.

You have to wonder what goes through Tubby's mind as he watches his listless team fall time and time again to superior competition, just as they did on Wednesday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Down by only five points early in the second half, Oklahoma State went on a 19-6 run and before his youthful crew could catch their collective breath, the score was 51-33 and all hope for a victory was lost.

At 0-6 in Big 12 play and sinking fast, this will likely be the worst year of Smith's 24 years as a head coach. Surely the Texas Tech administration thought they could catch lightning in a bottle twice by bringing in Smith. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Bobby Knight ignited a resurgence of the Red Raider program and surely the top brass in Lubbock were (are) hoping that Smith could (can) do the same.

It won't be this year and it may never happen, which would only add an abbreviated, unceremonious final chapter to the tragedy of Smith's career. Tubby will always have 1998 and he has the ring to prove it. For now though, he has only faint memories in a remote outpost of solitude that college basketball has long since forgotten, which just might be the end he prefers.

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...oh yeah, and I'm taking Iowa State to win this one and get to 5-1 in Big 12 play.

Iowa State 74 - Texas Tech 62