Imagine my surprise, and that of much of the UK fanbase, to see the elusive Tubby Smith pop up unannounced on ESPN's sports pundit show PTI (Pardon the Interruption) on Tuesday.
Prompted by a question about whether he understands why some UK fans want him gone, a startingly defiant Smith had some choice words for the perception that he's on his way out of Lexington, or that he's going to be forced out.
It was refreshing to me to see Tubby stand up for himself. One part of being the UK coach, he acknowledged to PTI hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, was dealing with the negative media aspects of the job. I have been a critic of Tubby Smith in the past for choosing humility over bravado when a little chest-puffing wouldn't hurt him. Seeing a Tubby with a spine was as rewarding as it was rare.
What's funny is that Tubby had to know that by calling out those folks who have been his harshest, unrelenting critics, he is shoving the stick deep into the beehive and stirring them up. And good for him. This segment of fans is merciless in its assessment of Smith's performance and his public demeanor in such venues as the Big Blue call-in show or postgame show, and yet they are fighting mad about Tubby actually answering his critics live on national television. You can't have it both ways, though many UK fans seem to actually believe that the UK coach is answerable to them ... and I don't mean the UK fanbase, but them specifically.
One interesting note was Tubby's inference that rumors of his leaving the program were hurting recruiting, something that many fans have bickered internally over for some time. There is a real disconnect between what fans think their harping does and what it actually does.
Many seem insistent that, like a revolution, if you change the people's mind en masse you can elicit the changes you seek from the top. Time will prove these folks right or wrong (most likely). But their opposing clique often tries to imply that message boards, call-in radio and the like have no effect on the UK program, and that is equally misguided.
The public perception of the UK job and its fanbase is that it is (a) among the best jobs in America when you are winning, (b) among it's most ungrateful when you are not and (c) as schizophrenic as any fanbase in the world, soccer included.
These are all true and not mutually exclusive. Tubby has come to know this, and UK fans will eventually. Exercising restraint has been a strange madness with this program, as Tubby has too often done this at his own peril and Big Blue Nation has too often failed to in similar measure.
Tubby Smith will or won't leave, but he will not be let go or fired for having a down year. A pattern of down years (missing the tournament years, not Elite Eight followed by 8-seed years, mind you) could change that, but that's something only time will tell.
In the meantime, it was nice to see UK's head coach stand up for himself and meet his challenge head on in the media the same way he has on the court.
I think a more realistic conversation between the UK fanbase and Smith would be very helpful for both. Tubby could stand to loosen the reins on the program and let Kentucky's faithful into the process more. Taking responsiblity for a crappy year would be a step towards this, as would continued candid assessments of the challenges the job creates.
By the same token, those UK fans who expect only the highest results at the risk of their self-worth and quality of life, and who continually fail to acknowledge the positive aspects of the Tubby Smith era, could stand to see the fruits of their ceaseless complaining -- a good man and coach whose job is both a miraculous gift and an undesireable burden at the same time.
Good for Tubby for standing up. Now let's see if he's been listening or simply digging in his heels and looking for a fight.
SEC tourney notes
Kentucky's loss to Florida had the surprising effect of actually dropping them into a more favorable bracket. Arkansas has been red-hot, while Alabama has been good, but beatable over the last month or so. The loss on Sunday leaves the Cats playing Bama after a win over Ole Miss (without which there will be much bigger problems all around), and then a potential rematch with Tennessee in the top of half of the bracket.
It would be nice to get a shot at righting some of the wrongs the Cats have suffered this year, and a wins over Bama, UT and potentially Florida in the SEC finals would salve some wounds for sure.