AP Photo/Michael E. Palmer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - A decade toiling under the glare of one of
college basketball's most exacting spotlights was enough for Tubby
Now, Kentucky must find a way to restore the program's luster
while replacing a highly respected coach who grew tired of the high
expectations and ever-present grumblings.
Smith left for Minnesota on Thursday, despite a 263-83 record in
10 seasons that included a national title. His departure was
greeted with glee by some on the school's campus. Several cars
driving by Memorial Coliseum - the team's practice gym - honked
their horns at reporters and gave the thumb's down signal.
The University of Minnesota will name Smith as Gopher head basketball coach Friday at 1pm. Stay tuned to 27 NEWSFIRST for our live coverage of the news conference during an extended version of 27 NEWSFIRST at Noon.
So what's next for the Cat's? Athletic director Mitch Barnhart's short list could include some
of college basketball's biggest names, including Michigan State's
Tom Izzo, Florida's Billy Donovan and Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie.
Whoever steps into the one of college basketball's most
demanding jobs must work quickly to retain the nucleus of a team
that went 22-12 and lost to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA
Center Randolph Morris led the team with 16.1 points and 7.8
rebounds this season, playing with a consistency he lacked his
first two seasons. But Morris might not stick around.
After the Kansas loss, Morris said he planned to return for his
senior season, but he didn't rule out leaving the Wildcats. Morris
already has flirted with the NBA draft before.
He and the rest of Kentucky's players were not available for
Smith's departure also leaves the school's incoming freshman
class up in the air. Kentucky has heavily recruited highly touted
forward Patrick Patterson, a teammate of O.J. Mayo's in Huntington,
W. Va., and guard Jai Lucas of Houston, son of former NBA player
and coach John Lucas. The two dynamic players would give the team a
much-needed athletic boost. Neither player has committed to a
school and might look elsewhere now that Smith is gone.
Barnhart said the coaching search will be "exhaustive,
comprehensive and focused."
Some of that focus could fall on Donovan, who broke into
coaching as an assistant coach for then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino
from 1989-1994 before leaving to coach Marshall.
Donovan's Florida team plays Butler on Friday in the NCAA's
round of 16, and he had no immediate comment. Florida athletic
director Jeremy Foley called any speculation about Donovan and
Kentucky "highly inappropriate."
"Billy's trying to coach his team," Foley said. "He's trying
to win a national championship, and we're trying to beat Butler."
Pitino, now the coach at Louisville, could not be reached for
comment. He recently praised Smith's efforts for dealing with the
pressure that comes with coaching the Wildcats.
Messages left for Izzo were not returned. Gillispie, coaching
the Aggies against Memphis in the round of 16 on Thursday night,
was not available for comment.
The ideal candidate will require a high tolerance for the
scrutiny that comes with being the leader of the self-dubbed "Big
Blue Nation." For years Smith seemed immune to the criticism,
saying it was simply part of the job.
"There's a lot of pressure to win there (Kentucky)," said
former Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes. "Maybe it was the best
situation for him and his wife and his family. Maybe him and the AD
had different outlooks on the season. Maybe it's just best for
What's best for the Wildcats will be bringing in a coach who can
win right away. Kentucky hasn't been to the Final Four since Smith
led the school to its seventh national title in 1998, Kentucky's
longest drought between national semifinal appearances since the
NCAA tournament began.
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)