A rift has been growing for some time within the Big Blue Nation, and readers of this forum and its predecessor know it's not a new one. However, with the advent of more public and timeless outlets (specifically message boards and talk radio) have given the struggle newfound power and an endless loop in which to echo.
I speak of the great "negativity" debate prevailing around the Kentucky program. Popular radio guy and UK blogger Matt Jones addressed it recently in a much-read post here, and our own contributor Trezenzuzex provided his own take here and here.
Put simply, after the glory days of the Rick Pitino regime, whose unmitigated success on the court both spoiled young UK fans too new to the game to recall down (read: normal) years and older fans all too happy to wear the basketball team's success as a badge of personal honor, and Tubby Smith's surprising run to the title in his first season, much has changed in and around the UK program, and thus, naturally, sides have been drawn.
On one end are those who decry the downfall of the state's flagship athletic team (sorry, Cardinal fans, deal with it). These folks see a Final Four drought, a run of inconsistent recruiting and a general malaise around the program as evidence that Tubby Smith's stewardship of the Cats is causing serious damage to the program's prestige, something that can take years to get back. Don't tell them stats on recent seasons or the difficulty of reaching the heights the '96-'98 Cats attained. And definitely don't talk about the possiblity that race might play a factor among even a select few grumblers. For this group, the willingness of others to watch -- even excuse -- a slow decline of their beloved Wildcat cagers is a travesty, and only a resolute and consistent drumbeat of internal opposition will right the ship, national media coverage be damned.
On the other end are those who preach a certain resolute calm, who point to a continued overall pattern of success and to the expectation of a natural return to earth, but whose (admittedly) somewhat irritating moral superiority and willingness to trust the shifting sands under their feet does little but grate their Big Blue brothers no longer in arms. Don't tell these folks that 8 years without a Final Four is a historically significant fact, and definitely don't tell them that Tubby bears some blame for the ills in his program. For these folks, the seemingly constant blame, calling for Smith's head and complaining in very public ways only fuel the fire, allowing for opposing recruiters to use the fanbase against itself and against Tubby and generally making being a UK hoops fanatic a really big pain in everyone's ass.
Longtime UK fans will tell you that it's all nothing new. Former coach Joe B. Hall quit a potential Hall of Fame career partially because he was fed up with the pressure and expectations surrounding his job, a job that should by all accounts be the best in the biz but simply isn't. Hall's 1978 national champion team has uniformly talked about how miserable and unwieldy the '78 season was for them, as fan expectations weighed down what should have been a triumphant return to glory, turning it into something just north of a welcome relief. Another former head man, Eddie Sutton, drank his way out of town, no doubt in part due to a combination of the pressures of uber-success and his own personal demons.
If Pitino had his own doubts, he was either too egotistical or two good an actor to let them play out on a bigger scale. His most telling action was his leaving for the NBA at the height of his collegiate success, which one can see as a shrewd capitalizing on hype and achievement or an acknowledgement that it can't last forever, or something in between.
Recruitniks will often tell you that Pitino left the cupboard fairly bare when he left, as a combination of opposition-recruiting ("Pitino won't be there in two years, Recruit A.") and his own life plans sapped the mojo from the Pitino juggernaut. Of Rick's 1998 recruits, only Michael Bradley, who went on to star at Villanova before heading to the NBA, proved to much more than a good role player (Myron Anthony and Ryan Hogan were RP's other '98 signees).
But regardless of the reasons for the rift, of the validity or lack thereof regarding either end of the 'negativity' spectrum, the drama being played out before us has its repercussions, both in the short- and long-terms.
A return to the Final Four robs one side of a significant arguing chip, while a repeat of last season's 22-13 debacle, or another offseason of recruiting scramble only further fuels the fire under Tubby's coaching seat.
The biggest lesson? Forget what you thought about the reasons for being a fan. This isn't the NBA. It's not politics and it's not war. This is Kentucky basketball. This is life, passion and obsession for Big Blue Nation.
And, for now, it's a debate with no resolution until the ball is tipped in Maui this winter. And even then, anything short of a UK national title or a Smith exit from the stage is unlikely to shorten this Three Act, or to make it any less Shakespearean to its many players.