Sometimes people wonder…
Why would Tubby Smith’s job be in jeopardy?
Why would UK want him back?
How has the Program (with a capital “P”) tumbled from, not only the Top 10 but the Top 25 entirely?
Will it EVER be back?
Are UK fans too demanding?
Have the media given Smith a free pass?
And why did it take so long for Mitch Barnhart to say something – anything?
With the season-ending loss still lingering over the Big Blue Nation, here is one man’s attempt to answer some of those questions and add some perspective from someone who hears from the UK faithful (and fickle) on a nightly basis.
UK’s basketball program is like few other; this much everyone knows. The most regular season wins, the most NCAA tournament wins, absolute dominance of the Southeastern Conference and seven NCAA championships. Standards are the highest. Kentucky has not been playing up to those standards. Simple as that.
Where fans and experts come to differ is, how? How has it come to this?
Obvious answer: Talent. It’s been well-documented that Kentucky’s talent level suffered for two of three seasons.
This year’s senior class should’ve included paper hoops for Shagari Alleyne and Rekalin Sims, two solid players capable of making spectacular plays, but only occasionally. There will be no NBA future for them or any of the players who burst through hoops in Rupp Arena on Senior Night this year.
UK’s sophomore class consists of one – ONE – player, Jared Carter. Admittedly, he does have tremendous upside. But he’s not yet a difference-maker. And he spent the year sidelined by injury.
The junior and freshman classes are good, bordering on excellent. Both Randolph Morris and Jodie Meeks appear to have NBA potential. And if Smith can land two other prized players, Patrick Patterson and Jai Lucas, that will give him three Top 10 classes in four years – and the kind of talent it takes to rejuvenate a program.
There are those who try to say Smith lacks in the X’s and O’s department. His shelf full of coaching awards says otherwise. And the argument that he doesn’t deserve credit for the 1998 national championship is specious and weak. Even his peers say the man is among the best in the game. But coaches who keep their teams among the elite have one key element in common: Talented players.
Smith has brought in some, but missed on too many others. A staff shakeup could resolve the disorganization insiders say has crippled UK’s recruiting efforts through the years. But only if the head coach hires the right people and becomes part of the solution, and does not remain part of the problem.
Kindness, Not Weakness
One of the favorite talk-show knocks on Barnhart and UK President Lee Todd is that they won’t fire Smith because “he’s too nice a guy.” Critics fail to realize Smith’s “goodness,” for lack of a better term, is not the same as weakness. Barnhart has said many times that at the end of the day, the one person on his staff he doesn’t have to worry about is Tubby Smith. And that’s big.
It’s huge, in fact, for a program that is the most heavily-penalized in NCAA history. UK basketball was the first program essentially hit with the death penalty. Kentucky was not allowed to field a team in 1952-53 because of the gambling scandal that ruined some of its players. It may have cost the Wildcats another national championship.
Lost in all the criticism of Smith’s recruiting tactics is the fact that he refuses to cheat. UK fans are not naïve enough to believe it doesn’t still go on; Smith won’t talk about it publicly. But the guess here is that a list of players UK has lost to other institutions through devious means would include some surprising names, names that might well have appeared on the back of Kentucky jerseys through the years.
Add his coaching ability to his moral compass and you know why Smith is considered one of the nation’s best, a man who would be extremely difficult to replace at a school where an opening in the head coach position would generate an avalanche of resume’s.
Success is Near
Smith has shown he can win a lot of games with marginal talent. He can win a LOT of games, as well as championships, with top-notch players. He has a roster full of promise, but one with some holes in it. Only astute recruiting can fill them, and that’s where we find the immediate future.
Add Patterson/Lucas to next year’s squad, with or without Morris, and you have a team capable of contending again for the SEC title, a 1 or 2 seed and a shot at the Final Four. Morris’ presence, along with those two newbies, might guarantee a pre-season Top 10 ranking.
And that’s all it takes at a place like Kentucky. The “fans” whohave lost hope will be back in the canoe, if only with one leg, should that happen. And they might actually scramble all the way in if the wins begin to pile up again, as they did from 2002-05, including one memorable, perfect 26-game stretch.
We Want More
Smith’s job status has become a national story. The demands of fans have become a sidebar. National media types take note of Smith’s overall record and reputation and wonder how a fan base can demand for the ouster of such a person. But as mentioned before, this is Kentucky. Standards are higher. The same media decried the fall of Notre Dame football and similarly lauded Charlie Weis for returning it (albeit prematurely) to the weekly Top 10.
You should know this: In Rupp Arena, they celebrate national championships. The banners that hang there commemorate titles, or at least, Final Four appearances. In other facilities throughout college basketball land, they hang banners celebrating an APPEARANCE in the NCAA tournament. Can you imagine?
No Free Passes
My colleagues and I are ripped regularly by fans who have spent the past two seasons sharpening their knives, teeth and wit. They accuse us of “making excuses” for Smith, for “covering up” for the UK coach, or for giving him too much credit for not enough success. Naturally, we disagree.
If you’re one of those fans who can’t understand how we could bring ourselves to our collective conclusion, remember this: We have neither the emotional nor the financial investment that you do. Most of us on the beat don’t live or die with Big Blue Hoops – at least, we’re not supposed to. We strive for objectivity, even those of us who grew up in this state.
And you should want it that way. Whenever there are questions swirling around the program, either football or basketball, I hear the same question: What’s going on? You deserve straight answers, not something spun through a Big Blue Haze.
So we sit on press row, in seats we didn’t have to pay for, eating popcorn we got out of industrial-strength sized bags in the press room. And we tell you what we see, what we think, what we know. That’s our job. It’s your job to develop a rooting interest.
We know how close Smith’s teams have been to making a return to the Final Four. The ’99 team falling one game short. Same for the ’03 team, thanks to Dwyane Wade and Keith Bogans’ ankle. The heartbreaking overtime loss to Michigan State in ’05. The upset loss to UAB in ’04 by what might have been his best team overall. Reverse just one of those outcomes and we likely aren’t having this discussion.
Giving It ‘Legs’
It was the media who prompted Mitch Barnhart to issue a statement regarding the immediate future of Tubby Smith, prior to the SEC tournament. It was meant to placate the various outlets peppering the UK athletics director with questions about Smith; instead, it only fueled speculation until, in a follow-up interview with the Associated Press, Barnhart said, “He’s my coach.”
Statement #2 helped, but Statement #1 made it a national story. Suddenly, rumors gave way to something tangible. Smith appeared on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” with unabashed fan Tony Kornheiser. Unfortunately for him, co-host Michael Wilbon, a personal friend of the UK coach, was off, but guest host Dan LeBatard was equally sympathetic.
They couldn’t understand why a man with Smith’s record and rep was under fire. But if they really took a look at it, at the way Kentucky basketball resonates throughout the nation, they’d realize the answer is simple.
This is Kentucky. Even in the days of parity, reduced scholarships, high-priced coaches and new facilities across the land, the expectations here are simple:
Win. Win now. Win big. Win often. And, every now and then, make a run to the Final Four.