In 1997, then-Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton needed a coach to succeed Rick Pitino at the helm of his school's legendary basketball program.
The Wildcats were coming off consecutive Final Fours, including the 1996 national title, so Newton decided the most important criteria would be pure coaching ability. He needed a proven coach to keep things rolling. He figured the other things – recruiting, program management, media and fan relations – while considered, would take care of themselves.
So he surveyed the country and hired Tubby Smith, a one-time UK assistant who had won big at Georgia and Tulsa.
“The hardest thing a coach has to do is coach players he did not recruit,” Newton said a few years back. “Tubby had shown an ability to go into Tulsa and not miss a beat. He went to Georgia and did the same thing. With the impatience of Kentucky people, I felt we could not afford to bring someone in that hadn’t shown (that) ability.”
Smith didn’t disappoint. In 1998, his first season, he delivered Kentucky its seventh NCAA title. And no matter how much tumult and tiring times have followed – including this most recent, troubling 10-loss season – there have been few questions about his bench skills.
The problems, it turns out, have been with just about everything else.
Which is why UK’s current AD, Mitch Barnhart, keeps issuing statements and clarifications of statements, Wildcat fans are listless, some boosters are set to whip out their checkbooks, the team is under immense pressure and Smith himself may very well be coaching (and recruiting) for his future, no matter what Barnhart is saying or not saying.
Eight-seed Kentucky (21-11) faces Villanova on Friday evening in Chicago with a ton on the line. The Wildcats are on the longest Final Four drought in the school's history – they haven't returned since Smith’s first season. And with a dangerous Nova club and top-seed Kansas looming, UK will need a monumental effort to avoid its third early tourney departure in four seasons.
It seems no amount of Smith coaching acumen can overcome his program's chronic and repeated failures in recruiting, roster building and chemistry. For Smith, the challenge has never been coaching, but managing a basketball program that is far more cultural force than team.
Kentucky is a decent team. And Smith is, generally, milking almost everything out of them in the face of a ferocious schedule. But since when did a program with this much support, tradition and history start being satisfied with “decent”?
“Tubby's our basketball coach,” Barnhart told the Associated Press Monday without saying Smith is guaranteed to return next season.
“We've had a couple years here that have been a little un-Kentuckylike, but I don't think that's a reason to panic or put ourselves in a position where we're not making objective calls in terms of the things we need to do to be better.”
But things have to be done better. And soon.
It’s not easy to find someone who doesn’t like Tubby Smith. He’s humble, hardworking, blue collar, classy, innovative and loyal. He grew up on a farm in Maryland, one of 17 children, and earned his nickname because he used to bathe in a steel tub. While much was made of Smith’s race when he was hired, he has far more in common with the average Kentuckian than Pitino, the New Yorker.
A 2004 poll by the Louisville Courier Journal found Smith the most popular person in the Commonwealth, with an incredible 98 percent of respondents having a favorable opinion of him.
So for the UK fans that have turned on Smith, this is business, not personal. But the business of Kentucky Basketball is intimately personal.
There are reasons why certain programs are successful. UCLA Basketball is located in one of the nation’s largest cities and most fertile recruiting grounds. Notre Dame Football has enjoyed national media attention for decades.
Kentucky? Kentucky is arguably the most storied and unarguably the most passionately followed college hoops program because Adolph Rupp showed up in Lexington in the 1930s and built a love affair between the team and the people of this mostly rural state.
It is that fan passion that has driven UK to those seven national titles won by a record four different coaches, to 43 SEC championships, to fill 23,000-seat Rupp Arena each night, to build a $30 million practice facility, to pay Tubby Smith $2.1 million per year. It is the fans that the school gladly celebrates when they camp out for weeks to get into "Big Blue Madness" or put their season tickets in their will. It’s like no place else.
“When they talk about the Big Blue Nation, it's true,” Smith said.
And so it is disingenuous to denigrate those same fans for unreasonable expectations, as seems to happen every time Smith’s precarious employment status is raised in the media. The fans’ emotional and financial commitments through the years are what made Kentucky. They have every right to expect a return on investment.
And under Smith, UK just isn’t delivering it in full.
While this is hardly a disaster, UK shouldn’t have back-to-back 13- and 12- (eventually) loss seasons. It shouldn't have 10-loss seasons in five of the last eight years. It shouldn’t go since 2004 without signing a top 25 recruit. It shouldn’t have the mass transfers it has suffered through the past decade. It shouldn’t have two seasons – last year and 2001-02’s “Team Turmoil” – blown by chemistry issues stemming from recruiting mistakes.
It shouldn’t have Smith cobbling together victories with a hodgepodge roster – some years there are no guards but good big men, some years good guards and no big men – an annual tightrope walk of talent.
It shouldn’t have to rely on prodigal son Randolph Morris’ failure to get drafted last June to bail out its frontcourt this year.
It shouldn’t have to watch kids who were dying to play in Lexington become stars at other, now superior SEC teams. Corey Brewer (Florida) and Chris Lofton (Tennessee) both reportedly wanted to attend UK but were not offered scholarships.
UK doesn’t have a single top 125 recruit signed for next season, which means unless Smith can land either (or both) West Virginia big man Patrick Patterson or Houston guard Jai Lucas, next season could be bleak.
Mostly, Kentucky shouldn’t have to be anything less than Kentucky. It should be a dominating program, the one that used to lay waste to the SEC before being a fearsome draw in the NCAAs. It shouldn’t be one reliant on superior coaching to maximize itself to, maybe, one NCAA tournament victory. Things could be far worse. But they could be better, too.
“We clearly understand the frustration,” Barnhart told the AP. “We’ll work at the end of the year to figure out what we need to do to be better, to get where we want to be. Fourth in our division is not where we want to be. And, you know, eight seeds (are) not probably where Kentucky ’s used to being.”
This is the Big Blue, not some mid-major.
“I think we have the talent,” Smith said Monday about UK ’s chances in this tourney. “When you play the toughest schedule in the country you can’t make many mistakes. I think what’s happened to us is early on we got outplayed at UCLA and Memphis. We did not play that well.
“We bounced back to win 11 straight, then in conference play there were some tough losses and maybe our confidence got shook. (But) we have the talent to compete and that is what we expect to do in the NCAA tournament.”
The question is whether compete will be enough.
Barnhart signified Monday that Smith, 55, would be back next year. Sort of. He clearly said changes were coming. “We'll always look to make adjustments to the things we've got to do to get better,” he said. “Tubby and I will do that collectively.”
One Kentucky source said Barnhart will push for Smith to replace his assistants with superior recruiters, although Barnhart denied that to the AP. Another source said the AD made the same request last year and Smith, loyal to the end, only changed the program’s strength and conditioning coach. Others point out that the assistants can’t make Smith offer scholarships to the right people.
It is clear Smith could use a general manager to build the team, give him the pieces to just coach – which is his passion. But this is the NCAA, not the NBA. Smith is the King of Kentucky. Like it or not, it’s all on him.
Meanwhile prominent UK athletic boosters say they are ready if needed to buy out Smith’s contract, which would cost the school an estimated $4 million. While they say there has been no formal signal to begin raising the money, they promise that it won’t take long.
“If (Barnhart) said, ‘look, can we get $5 million together to buy-out Tubby?’ it’d be done in less than 48 hours,” said one donor who has both the means and the desire to help make it happen. “Everyone just wants to know, where is this (program) headed? Where is this going?”
In the short-term, it needs to head toward a victory over Villanova, a strong effort, if not an upset, against Kansas and a big-time recruiting commitment (or two) for any sense of calm to return. Or else it is either going to be a long, or perhaps quite short, off-season for Smith.
“It’s time to bounce back and prove ourselves,” he said of the immediate NCAA challenge.
With Smith, you always come back to wondering if Kentucky just might not be the perfect place. Ten seasons in this pressure cooker is a long and successful run for anyone.
The intense focus on the program – both from the nation’s largest day-in, day-out media contingent to a rabid fan base stretching from Paintsville to Paducah – calls for an extrovert as head coach. Smith is not that person. The expectations require near perfect decisions in all parts of the program.
Smith seems to just want to coach. So maybe this decent, respected man would be best served at a place where just being the coach is enough.
“Growing up on the farm, (my dad) would say, ‘Boy, do your job and your job only,’” Smith told me a couple years ago. “Everybody in the family had a job to do. Feed the hogs, feed the chickens, pull weeds from the garden, cutting firewood, hauling wood.
“If you do someone else’s job, then you probably don’t have your job done. Now you’ve got your brothers and sisters mad at you for not having your job done.”
His job is to coach. It is why he was hired a decade ago. He does it as well as anyone in America.
Unfortunately, at Kentucky, there is more to the job than that. At some point, everyone in Lexington is going to have to sit down and admit that.