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The Tubby Motive

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I wanted to comment on this yesterday, but as most of you over 30 will recall, yesterday was Father's Day.  We hosted a family barbecue, so that constrained my blogging.

What I'm talking about is this article from TwinCities.com, the online home of the Pioneer Press up in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  The article discusses the trials and tribulations of Tubby Smith's early years, when his son Saul walked on to UK and eventually became the starting point guard, much to the chagrin and frustration of many Kentucky fans.

Saul's time at UK was a watershed for Tubby's career here, as it hearkened UK fans directly back to the days of Eddie Sutton and his son, Sean.  For many fans, Saul's career was the end of any love they had for Smith.

I remember being very frustrated with the abuse of Saul Smith by UK fans during those days, and it is still a period of time that I will remember more with sadness than with fondness.  But in defense the Saul Smith detractors' feelings (but not their shameful actions), I shared some of their frustration when Smith refused to play Cliff Hawkins more during his freshman year.  But no reasonably objective person can say that Saul Smith got special treatment -- Smith's preference for playing seniors is legendary.  Just ask Perry Stevenson.

But the truly interesting thing about this article was not that it helped me relive a difficult period in UK basketball.  Instead, after reading the article, I began to get a better idea of Tubby Smith's motivations for leaving UK.

See, Tubby had been assailed by an ever-larger portion of the fans for years.  That may have been wearing on him, but I doubt it was the major motivator.  Barnhart signed him to a huge contract that strongly discouraged firing him, and even though Barnhart and Smith were rumored to be at odds, Smith has proven nothing over the years if not that he has thick skin and heavily calloused feelings.  If the fans' despicable assaults on his son could not force him into rash action, Barnhart and some relentless detractors of his coaching would surely not do so.

However, there were two other factors that most of us (well, at least me) failed to recognize:  Smith's family ties and his son's move to coaching.  Almost every UK fan knows that Tubby Smith is a huge family man.  His entire coaching culture at UK was built around the family model, often to the frustration of some fans. Most of us were at least peripherally aware that Saul Smith was moving into coaching, following his father.  These two factors, in my opinion, provided the strongest motivation for Tubby to leave UK.

Saul Smith would never have been accepted as an assistant coach here.  Never.  And Tubby unquestionably knew this.  Smith wanted to mentor his son in coaching, just like he did when Saul played at UK, but that avenue was forever closed to him while he was at Kentucky.  Even another national championship (an unlikely happenstance given the direction of the program) would not have provided him with the necessary political capital to hire his son as an assistant here.

Enter Minnesota with an offer on par with what UK was paying Smith.  Now, Tubby could go to UM, hire his son, and as a bonus, remove all those little indignities he had been suffering over the years -- all for a very small pay cut.  Tubby is not a young man anymore, and he knows more of his coaching days are behind him than ahead of him.

So why would Tubby Smith leave legendary UK basketball for moribund Minnesota?  Given all these factors, Smith's decision looked easy.  Yes, he was taking a hit in status, but let's face it -- he never intends to leave UM to coach elsewhere -- his next gig will be on, in the words of Blake Shelton, "some beach, somewhere". He has hired his son, who can now learn the coaching trade from his father, and nobody in Gopherland will say boo about it.  His family is back together in a place where he faces far less pressure and will have more time with them.  And he was no doubt aware that all this would come to pass before he left.  Saul's position was the straw that broke Kentucky's back, not Barnhart's reputed unhappiness.

Family has always meant more to Smith than anything.  Always.  Much more.  End of story.

Ryan Ferguson (aka Gatorpilot) at the AOL Fanhouse links this post in a recent article.  Thanks, Ryan.