In a relationship on the rocks, Tubby Smith made the break-up easy (and cheap) for the University of Kentucky.
With boosters at the ready to raise whatever it took to make a coaching change, with Smith desperate for recruits after 25 losses in two seasons overriding memories of the 1998 national title, and with athletic director Mitch Barnhart all but set to demand major staff changes, Smith found safe waters in Minnesota.
The move frees up a good man who did a good job in the pressure cooker of UK Basketball all while freeing up the Big Blue to go get a fresh coach to turn around this historic program.
There is no loser here, just winners. This was going to happen, either now or in a year when – barring some recruiting miracles – a thoroughly undermanned UK team shuffled through a truly subpar season as exasperated fans vented.
Smith is a tremendous game coach and his ball line defensive system has produced some legendary teams at UK. He was hired by then-Kentucky AD C.M. Newton for just those skills, the ability to take a loaded roster of Rick Pitino players and lead them to the school’s seventh national championship.
He delivered then and he delivered most years. Kentucky fans owe him gratitude for that.
But he also failed at putting together teams and making the right calls in recruiting. Nearly 20 players transferred during Smith’s tenure, twice entire seasons were overwhelmed by poor chemistry and UK hasn’t signed a top 25 player since 2004.
Meanwhile two kids who all but begged to come to UK but weren’t offered scholarships – Florida’s Corey Brewer and Tennessee’s Chris Lofton – have helped lift those SEC programs to national power.
In recent years the Wildcats have often had to rely on Smith’s pure coaching ability to win, something that shouldn’t be necessary at a program with such appeal, resources and commitment.
While the tendency among the national media has been to bash unrealistic UK fans, the reality is they’re commitment to the program should allow them to expect a high return on investment, one Smith, no matter how good of a person, just wasn’t delivering in recent years.
In the end, after 10 intense years, it was just time for fresh blood for UK and a fresh place for Smith.
Minnesota offers a Big Ten program long on potential that has been stagnant since a massive academic scandal under Clem Haskins derailed the program. The U hired Don Monson out of Gonzaga but he never panned out.
The Gophers should allow Smith to attract the kind of blue-collar players who tend to thrive under his coaching system and personality. If he avoids the mistakes of team building – which under less stressful circumstances he should – Smith will win in the Twin Cities.
This can only be considered a great day for Minnesota Basketball.
And for Kentucky Basketball. And for Tubby Smith.
A 10-year marriage that needed to end did. It broke in far friendlier fashion Thursday then it would have had it dragged on another season or, perhaps, even another month.
- Tubby Smith