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Whither Coach Smith?

When Orlando "Tubby" Smith was hired as the head coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team, some were surprised, a few bemused, a couple elated and most impressed with the athletic director C.M. Newton's vision.

As the first African-American coach at a school with, if put mildly, a dubious history with racial issues, there was much to applaud. Basketball-wise, the choice was bold, if unorthodox. There was no reason to believe Smith couldn't handle the pressures of the job, or that he was unaware of the culture of winning Kentucky fans had grown accustomed to. Heck, the guy even had a few years as a UK assistant under his belt. Thus, even beyond the 'Adolph Rupp Factor' -- a subject as much misunderstood as it is overwrought, I mean how many black coaches have their been at Duke, Kansas or North Carolina(*)? The answer is not a one -- the Smith hiring certainly was a bold and right step, both public relations-wise and karmically.

In 1997, there were reasons to expect both the best and something less. Smith had taken Tulsa and turned it into a feeder program (Bill Self took the Golden Hurricanes to the 2000 Elite Eight) before moving on to Georgia, where he also had excellent and surpassing NCAA Tournament success (two Sweet 16s, nearly upsetting Syracuse). Tubby was considered a coach on the rise, and while some raised eyebrows that Newton would hand the keys to the Benz over to the kid used to driving the Hyundai, few felt Smith wasn't up to the challenge. Combined with the peripheral aspects of the hire, and most, even though a bunch of UK fans will pretend they never liked Smith as coach now, were excited.

Newton has admitted that he took a gamble on Smith, knowing that the Georgia coach had yet to really take a program and make it his own. Smith had used good players and turned them well above average teams, and Kentucky -- coming off back-to-back national title games -- needed to win now.

Smith looked perfect for the job in the spring of 1997.

But here again things seemed preternaturally well-timed, as Tubby came in and did the nearly unthinkable, taking an amalgam of good, but not great, players Pitino had left behind and winning the whole damned thing in 1998. By the time the 1999 season came to a close, with a disappointing but hardly shocking loss to a strong Michigan State team whose core would go on to be the best team in college hoops the next season, Tubby Smith looked comfortable and in control of the mighty Wildcats.

To top it off, Tubby went out and grabbed a two-man crew strong enough to be dubbed the nation's best recruiting class. Keith Bogans and Marvin Stone, two of the nation's top 10 players, came to Lexington (along with redshirt Marquis Estill) on the back of a flood of positive momentum. The future looked bright, and there was little reason to doubt it would be.

But the way that class fared would be, very much in hindsight, exactly the sort of mixed bag that dogged Tubby Smith all the way until his unceremonious exit for the wilds of Minnesota.

Tubby Smith's coaching continued to be strong. After a roster crunch left Jamaal Magloire and a then-sophomore (*) Tayshaun Prince with little help in the 2000 campaign, help arrived in the form of surprise recruit Jason Parker and a few hidden gems in Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins. Such classes -- one or two bona fides and a slew of rough-cut diamonds -- seemed to be Tubby's recruiting style. The philosophy being that you couldn't stock your roster with one-year wonders, you had to balance it with four-year guys. Seems logical enough.

Tubby's problems first began in earnest when some of those one-year wonders didn't pan out. Bogans was a strong college talent with NBA heart and Stone was the exact opposite. Parker battled injury and his own demons before getting tossed from the team. Stud shooter Rashaad Carruth brought more baggage with him than a rich widow on a cruise. In five years, Smith had managed three double-digit loss seasons. Most folks, myself included, had chalked the losses up primarily to parity, chemistry, growing pains or some vague shoulder shrug of "who knows?" Few -- and again don't buy the revisionist 'I always knew it' line -- honestly thought much was wrong. But by the time the 2002-03 season rolled around, half the roster was gone and the only ones left were thought to be the weak parts of Smith's recruiting classes, the four-year guys that lacked athleticism or NBA size or both. Only Bogans was considered a future pro.

Questionable recruits made Tubby's job a lot harder than it needed to be.

Typically, Smith turned potentially his worst team into arguably (*) his best (the 1998 champs included). Molding a group of scrappy players into a defensive machine, Tubby and Co. pounded the SEC, and Smith rightly earned the accolades that followed, sweeping the national coach of the year awards. The next season saw the first shocking upset of a Smith-coached UK team, when UAB tore the hearts out of an overachieving 2004 team. An influx of five-star talent came in the next year, and the Cats lost in double OT, falling just short of the hallowed Final Four once again.

But despite the repeated NCAA disappointments, it seemed that Smith had figured out the way his teams would work: tough man-to-man defense and an opportunistic offense that would provide enough points to win. But history would prove that the underlying story was a quite different one.

Whether it was his stubborness or poor scouting, Smith never could get the Burger Boy talents to work in his system. One by one the big names disappeared, either literally (Stone, Carruth) or figuratively (Barbour, Morris). And while the afterthoughts continued to surprise and over-perform -- guys like Fitch, Daniels and the fan favorite Chuck Hayes -- the margin for error got slimmer and slimmer. Finally, the inevitable happened, and the four-year guys, the scrappy overachivers, stopped overachieving. And the bottom fell out.

Rightly or wrongly, the class of 2007 -- Bobby Perry, Sheray Thomas, Lukasz Obrzut and the departed Shagari Alleyne -- bear the burden of being the class that is perceived to have finished Tubby Smith at Kentucky. Despite their generally best efforts, the hidden talents, and the subsequent results, just weren't there.

What Tubby Smith left behind is a depleted roster with some raw ability and an unimaginable -- for a non-probation Kentucky program -- amount of holes. There literally is no junior class next season. Jared Carter's redshirt year and the departure of Adam Williams to Marshall last season means a void in experience. Thankully, and somewhat ironically, the sophomore class, overlooked and maligned when they signed, turned out to be a good one, though backcourt-heavy.

So by now you may be wondering where I am going with this. After all, we're all excited about our new coach, and have put much of the pro- and anti-tubby arguments, mercifully, to sleep. Well, I'm a little pissed off, honestly, and confused. Because as I noted at the outset, I thought Smith's hiring was the right call at the right time. And I thought that the margin between the roller coaster we all witnessed and a glorious Smith reign of titles at Kentucky was very slim. I figured that Smith just needed a few breaks, a free throw here, a bounce or a call there. As it turned out, it looks like Smith needed much more than a few breaks. He needed to look in the mirror.

Smith's legacy at Kentucky will likely be much harsher than it should have been.

Now Tubby has taken his act to Minnesota, a school most notable for a deep-seated cheating scandal that wiped out its most glorious modern basketball memory, the 1997 Final Four. Whether Smith will succeed or fail at U of M is beyond knowing. But one thing is certain, he will not succeed with the level of effort and attention (or lack thereof) he displayed in his time at Kentucky.

And this brings me to one of the reasons I'm peeved at Smith. No sooner had he arrived in Minneapolis, amid pom poms and talk about "already feeling loved," as if the fans at Kentucky hadn't given their love for 8 of his 10 season at the helm, than he went out and hired a star recruiting assistant, Jimmy Williams, late of Oklahoma State. It wasn't enough, apparently, for Kentucky -- a school so rich in hoops tradition that it is the all-time leader in NCAA wins and winning percentage -- to suffer through several down recruiting classes in the last five years for Smith to take action. It took a change of scenery and a jettisoning of his assistants (assistants so valuable to his UK "success", apparently, that they couldn't be taken with him to Minnesota) to get Smith to change, to admit that maybe, just maybe, he could use some help on the recruiting trail. That Williams has a checkered past and Smith still saw his value only further sticks in my craw. How many AAU recruits, perfectly clean kids but kids who had the baggage that comes with the modern recruiting scene, had UK missed out on over the last 10 years because of Smith's insistence on playing it squeaky clean and safe? Now that he's gone, Tubby can play the game like everyone else, apparently. Now he can roll with the big boys ... at Minnesota?

Update [2007-4-18 11:50:22 by JL Blue]: Looks like the Jimmy Williams hire has, in fact, been shot down. Still worth talking about, since Tubby did not try such a hire at UK ...

OK, so fine. At a school like Kentucky, with a whole slew of recruiting shenanigans on its back, that was no small thing. One whiff of recruiting impropriety and the whole thing could be shut down. No need to take chances. Plus, Smith gets a fresh start and sees room for improvement. I've been there. How many times have we all been there and realized that changes needed to be made only after the fact? Bunches.

And that was the one thing, even in the worst times, the losing four straight to Vandy times, that you always had as fodder to battle back against the "far Tubby" crowd. Smith was one of the good guys, an above-the-board family man with an unreproachable moral compass. He would never steal a recruit, poach a coach, pull a scholarship. Not that type of guy. Or so it seemed.

"Some people believe Lou Dawkins, a boys high school basketball coach from Saginaw, Mich., could become an administrative assistant to new Gophers coach Tubby Smith. Dawkins, who played for Smith at Tulsa, has a player in Saginaw, 6-foot-7 all-state power forward Draymond Green, who committed to Smith at Kentucky but reneged when Tubby left for Minnesota.

Wait, what?

So the golden parachute ($1.5 million "loyalty bonus") out of Lexington wasn't enough, now Smith wants to take his recruits with him? He apparently talked to Jai Lucas about the possibility of considering Minnesota, too. That Lucas wasn't interested doesn't take away from the fact that Smith looked into it.

All of this begs the question, then: was I wrong about Orlando "Tubby" Smith? Which man is he?

Is he the Tubby that came to UK with seemingly unlimited potential to succeed or the broken coach whose last recruiting class included two players, the highest ranked of which was in the mid-90s? Is he the above-reproach coach who wouldn't consider AAU kids considered "shady" or potentially chemistry-killing or is he the guy who just hired an assistant that Minnesota is considering shooting down because of his past improprieties? Is he the guy who turned Georgia and Tulsa into winners or who turned mighty Kentucky into Tulsa?

Or is he, like many of us, just a changed man?

I don't hate Tubby Smith. I don't particularly feel wronged by him. But I feel extremely let down. I spent many hours, many words and even more thoughts defending him, even from myself. I supported him through Team Turmoil, banking on his promises and his enthusiasm. I watched every game, scoured the city for satellites to watch 50-49 SEC games and losses to Vanderbilt, all the time figuring that Smith was just one break away from getting over the hump. I looked reality in the eye and told myself that it wasn't there. And now? I feel gypped, big time.

I'll wish Smith well at Minnesota, so long as his and UK's paths don't cross (though you can bank that if he gets the Gophers into the NCAAs at some point they'll be in our bracket). I'll certainly root for him against the Indianas and Ohio States and Illinois of the world.

But you'll forgive me if I don't offer him much more than a polite thanks right now. Smith's stewardship of the hallowed Kentucky program was, with excellent 20-20 backwards vision, a disappointment. He had everything he needed to finish his career in blue and white, with national titles (plural) after his name, and -- either by ambivalence or mismanagement -- he blew it. Maybe Billy Gillispie will right the ship and return Kentucky into a program-eater. Maybe he won't.

But I'll be damned if I sit idly by and watch the anything like that happen again.

[*EDITOR'S NOTE: Two factual errors I admit were wrong and have been updated. (1) UCLA had not one, but two African-American coaches. That was my fault for not doing my homework. and (2) Prince was a frosh in the 1998-99 season, not the 99-2000season as I wrote. Thx to readers for correx, and I apologize for the sloppiness. Also, nothing about comparing teams is "inarguable" as I previously wrote.]