LEXINGTON My emotions are swirling as no doubt are those of a lot of Kentucky fans with the news that Tubby Smith has left the Wildcats to take over the program at the University of Minnesota.
My first reaction Thursday afternoon was to think of Tubby the human being. And for that, I feel intense sadness. By all accounts theres no nicer man or one with more class anywhere in or out of coaching than Tubby Smith. I have NEVER heard one unkind word about Tubbys character, and boy, thats rare in coaching circles.
I would be stunned to hear of any improprieties from an ethics standpoint from Tubby Smith in his 10 years as head coach at Kentucky.
"I dont have to worry about Tubby Smith," University of Kentucky President Lee Todd has said about Smith and how well Smith has represented the university.
Then again, the bright side about Tubby the man may be this: He doesnt have to put up with the intense criticism or live in the fishbowl existence that is your fate coaching basketball at Kentucky.
I thought Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich made a great point a few weeks ago when he wrote that Tubby should leave UK for Tubbys sake that Smith didnt look like a guy who enjoyed his job anymore.
The flip side of my reaction is this: Tubbys departure is best for both parties.
Supporters of Tubby Smith the basketball coach point to his average of 26 wins a season at Kentucky, a road that included a national championship with the Wildcats in 1998 a year after Smith took over for the beloved Rick Pitino.
(Id like to take a timeout here and throw in this note: Some fans try to discredit Smith for that national title in 98 by saying "He did it with Ricks players." I always thought that was grossly unfair to Smith. It wasnt like Pitino left a roster of McDonalds All Americans for Smith to inherit. I thought the coaching job Smith did in 98 was one of the best coaching jobs Ive ever seen at any level of athletics).
But the raw number of 26 wins a year is deceptive as a line of defense for this reason the trend was headed the other way for Smith. The last two seasons have been relative disasters for the Wildcats under Smith. Kentucky barely squeaked into the NCAA Tournament both years as an eight seed and both years lost in the second game.
Yes, all teams are going to have off years periodically. But my concern is that these off years happened in years nine and 10 of Smiths tenure. That shouldnt be happening. And the reason why its happening is because recruiting has slipped. Evidence? Did you watch the Wildcats loss to Kansas? You have to be blind not to notice the difference in talent.
Theres no reason Kentuckys recruiting shouldnt be up with the other big names in college basketball each and every year. With Kentuckys tradition and fan base, recruiting should take care of itself.
But that hasnt been the case with Smith. And I realize that yes; this years freshman class was a good one. Good, but not Kentucky good. Not Florida good. Not Kansas good. Not even Tennessee good.
On the rare occasions Smith has signed a so-called big-name recruit, hes often been a head case (Read: Rashaad Carruth, Jason Parker, etc.). The few who havent (Read: Tayshaun Prince) have been rare.
Smith made a successful living with lower-profile recruits for a while, such as three to five years ago with the likes of Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels. Those were players who appeared to buy into Smiths system and were successful because they listened to Smith (no one ever accused Tubby of not knowing the game) and played hard.
But what turned me, finally, against Tubby the past couple years is I saw an increasing lack of passion from Tubbys players. Surely Im not alone in this thought. This past season especially, I left more games feeling disappointed in the effort of the Wildcats even more than the result.
And the players Smith has signed recently are simply not good enough to give less than 100 percent.
Tubby is leaving at the right time, looking ahead to next season. A lot of Kentucky fans are doing some wishful thinking and hoping junior center Randolph Morris will return to the Wildcats instead of jumping to the NBA.
THAT is a dream in Lexington. Morris is gone as sure as there will be daylight tomorrow, and I couldnt blame him. And if he uses Smiths departure in any way as a reason, dont believe it.
So without Morris, where does that leave the 2007-08 Wildcats? In a world of hurt, thats where. Jared Carter will be the only returning big man, and while I think Carter will be a good player down the road, it wont be next season. He just isnt experienced enough.
Smith had hoped to reinforce his team by signing highly touted prospect Patrick Patterson of Huntington, W.Va., a power forward Kentucky sorely needs, but word this week is that even if Smith stayed, Patterson is headed to Florida.
So had Smith stayed, hed be looking at another year with two guards, Jodie Meeks and Ramel Bradley, who can score. A point guard in Derrick Jasper who cant score to save his life, a point guard in Bradley whos a turnover in waiting, a gross underachiever in guard-forward Joe Crawford ... a center in Carter with precious little experience
In other words, its an ugly picture. And thats why I believe it had reached a point of no return for Tubby Smith at Kentucky. He wouldnt have survived another year, one that may well be worse than the last two.
Last, who will take on the challenge at Kentucky?
Many fans are already salivating over a possible return by Pitino. My first reaction to that is to laugh, but then again, UK fans were the ones laughing years ago when it was first hinted Pitino might consider the Louisville job.
Still, call Rick a long shot, unless youre talking Rick Majerus, perhaps. But age and health work against Majerus.
The other dream for UK is Florida coach Billy Donovan. Five years ago I might have called that a realistic goal. But now, with one national championship down and another pending this spring, I doubt it. Donovan is beloved in Florida and his wife reportedly loves Florida.
Perhaps Donovan will use the UK job as a method to get more money out of the Gators administration, but I dont see him wearing Kentucky blue any time soon.
Id love to have a guy like Tennessees Bruce Pearl, but I cant see that either, for several reasons. One, Pearl appears loyal to Tennessee, and two, Kentucky fans might not stomach that choice since Pearl has been a thorn in UKs side the last two years.
So some of the potential candidates that may be more realistic are as follows: Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie, Gonzagas Mark Few, Marquettes Tom Crean, Notre Dames Mike Brey and Villanovas Jay Wright.
Former UK greats Travis Ford, finishing his first season at Massachusetts, and John Pelphrey, ending his second year at South Alabama, will also no doubt be mentioned.
But Ford and Pelphrey probably wont get serious consideration because neither has enough experience as a head coach in Division I.
I wish, and I may be one of the few, that the UK administration would overlook that in Pelphreys case. I love the guy, frankly. I think Pelphrey has Tubby Smith-like integrity, and Pelprey has experience recruiting big name talent, not at South Alabama so much but in his half dozen seasons or so as Donovans chief assistant at Florida.
But, of the more realistic options, my choice would be in this pecking order: 1. Gillispie, 2. Crean, 3. Few.
Meanwhile, who wouldnt wish Tubby Smith the best at Minnesota? The Gophers program has been in shambles since an academic scandal in the late 90s, but Smith could be a perfect fit for Minnesota. Expectations are not high so Tubby will have time to build, and, best of all, the dull offense that he so often employs should be a great fit for the Big Ten.
Tubby will win 20, 21 games a year at Minnesota, make the NCAA Tournament every other year, and the fans will love him.