Friday, March 23, 2007

The Pressure Cooker That is Kentucky

"He was looking forward to a new stage, a final stage I hope here," Maturi said. "We talked about a lot of things, but mostly it was about academic rates, graduation rates and that was one of the many things that endeared me to him. We didn't talk much about salary, but what he could do for young men. I know all coaches talk like that, but he lives it. That's who he is. That's why he is so revered."

--Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi on Tubby Smith

When Tubby Smith decided on Thursday that he was ready to move on from the Univesity of Kentucky, I immediately got a sinking feeling in my stomach. My beloved alma mater had just lost a quality, high character, national championship coach to a school where hockey is as big if not bigger than basketball.

I was certainly not the only one who was disappointed at the news. But there were also many people within the UK fan base who had an opposite reaction. On the UK basketball message boards, there were 13,000+ people logged in to discuss the news yesterday. Many if not most of them were glad to see Tubby leave Kentucky.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Considering we live in a microwave society where results are expected immediately, patience is a lost art, and everyone has a voice on talk shows and the internet it was easy to see this situation unfolding over the past year or two. Couple that environment with the fact that the situation at Kentucky comes with incredibly high -- and I would argue incredibly unrealistic -- expectations, and Tubby's departure makes sense. The man was just fed up with never feeling like he was appreciated. I don't blame him a bit for his decision.

The frustrating part for me is that I don't think these fans who demand so much will really learn anything from this experience. In their minds they believe they are justified in having their wish fulfilled for a new coach and entitled to the success that they want for UK. The reality is these expectations are wildly unachievable. A Final Four every year is not realistic. Is it something to strive for? Certainly. But if the team has a great year and falls short of a national championship, that doesn't justify or entitle getting a new coach.

Tubby is an outstanding indivdual. I met him in 1998 in North Carolina at the Jimmy V charity golf tournament after Tubby had just won the national championship. He was as gracious, humble and unassuming of a person as I could imagine, especially for someone that was the championship coach at arguably the most storied basketball program in the country. But he was more than that. Tubby graduated his players, ran his program the right way, and didn't cheat to win -- something to be noted with Kentucky's checkered past. And Tubby certainly won -- an average of 26 wins per year, one national championship, two Elite Eights, and multiple SEC championships. It is a sad reflection on us as fans when such success isn't good enough.

All that said, in spite of the negative aspects of the expectations at UK there is an upside to Kentucky fans' fanatacism as well. When Kentucky plays in the SEC and NCAA tournaments their fans turn out in blue-clad droves. Amy and I traveled to Nashville a couple years ago to see the first and second round games there, and Kentucky fans filled up 75% of Gaylord Arena. Despite a fourth-place finish this year in the SEC, Kentucky fans still had the plurality of fans in Atlanta. Kentucky fans are loyal, passionate and will travel anywhere to support their team.

Pat Forde, my favorite college basketball writer, sums it up very well in his article on yesterday.

But beyond the lunatic fringe -- and it's probably true that Kentucky's lunatic fringe is thicker than most -- this was a supportive fan base during a pretty lousy season.

The proof of that was on display in Rupp on Feb. 20, when the Wildcats played LSU.

Kentucky came in reeling, having lost three in a row. LSU was in the midst of a terrible season and was playing without All-America center Big Baby Davis. This had mismatch written all over it.

Instead, LSU raced out to a 16-point first-half lead. I fully expected the UK fans to drop a chorus of boos on the home team, given its blasé performance in a must-win situation against a very beatable opponent. There were none. Zero. Instead, the fans helped energize a Kentucky comeback victory. The place roared with positive noise throughout the second half. This is what you'll get when you're the Kentucky coach: More scrutiny than you've ever had in your career, but also more passionate support.

The coming days and probably weeks will be dominated by speculation on who the next coach will be. There will be those who want Billy Donovan to bolt from Florida and those who want to return to the glorious 90's with Rick Pitino. I don't think there is a chance in the world that either one of these two coaches would take the UK job.

Similarly I think Kentucky fans have to realistically expect that some candidates may turn the job down. The pressure cooker that the fans have created is not for every coach. Some coaches will probably talk to Mitch Barnhart only to stay at their schools for more money -- the leverage game will definitely be played.

Coaches like Marquette's Tom Crean, Texas A&M's Billy Gillespie, Texas's Rick Barnes, John Calipari at Memphis, and Villanova's Jay Wright will be on the list of candidates. Personally I don't think Crean has done enough outside the Final Four run with Dwyane Wade. I think Barnes is a great recruiter but a questionable bench coach. And John Calipari left his last program at UMass in turmoil with NCAA violations, something Kentucky should be very leary of.

In the end I would be happy with Wright or Gillespie. I think both of them are good, up-and-coming coaches who have produced at schools with less basketball acumen than Kentucky. I just hope the next coach can survive the pressure cooker environment that he will face. And I hope he can hold a candle to the character coach in Tubby Smith that he will replace.

1 comment:

d. chad said...

Having just gone through the same thing with my beloved alma mater, NCSU, I can offer you one piece of essential advice to maintain your sanity during this difficult time: stay away from the sports blogs!