AP Photo/Michael E. Palmer
In Tubby Smith's 10 seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats never missed the NCAA tournament, winning a national title, five SEC championships and 76 percent of their games.
That wasn't good enough for the demanding Kentucky faithful, so Smith said "adios" before athletic director Mitch Barnhart had to fire him amid increasing pressure from fans and program supporters.
Smith is bolting the bluegrass to take over the reeling program at Minnesota, a change of scenery that has him going from the winningest program in college basketball to a team that went 9-22 last season, including 3-13 in the Big Ten.
"You always want to be wanted," Smith told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader in a story posted on its Web site Thursday night. "You know they have a need."
Kentucky President Lee Todd said he appreciated the service Smith gave to the university.
"He is among the best as a coach and has represented this university with class and professionalism," he said in a statement.
Unfortunately for Smith, he wasn't nearly as appreciated by the legion of impatient fans who long for the days of Adolph Rupp and Rick Pitino.
Smith's job status had grown increasingly shaky over the last few seasons as the Wildcats failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in three of the last four years.
The Wildcats went 22-12 this season and made it to the NCAA tournament, but lost to top-seeded Kansas in the second round. Kentucky has not appeared in the Final Four since winning the championship in Smith's first season in 1998, the longest drought since the NCAA tournament began.
"There's a lot of pressure to win there," said former Wildcat Chuck Hayes, who played for Smith from 2001-05. "Maybe it was the best situation for him and his wife and his family. Maybe him and the AD had different outlooks on the season. Maybe it's just best for him."
Barnhart gave Smith a vote of confidence before the tournament began, but also said he would sit down with the coach after the season ended to discuss possible changes to get the program back on top.
In the end, Smith never was able live up to the standard set by the man he replaced at Kentucky. Pitino became a legend in Lexington, leading the Wildcats to three Final Fours, including the 1996 national title and the 1997 championship game, before leaving to coach the Boston Celtics.
Wildcats fans grew even more restless when Pitino returned to the state of Kentucky, leading rival Louisville to the 2005 Final Four.
"He would probably be the only guy in the nation who could keep those fans happy," Hayes said of Pitino. "Him and (Adolph) Rupp."
Smith won't face near the pressure here at Minnesota, where Gopher fans just want to see their team competitive in the Big Ten.
Dan Monson was forced to resign seven games into the season, leaving interim coach Jim Molinari with an overmatched group that lost more games than any team in Minnesota's 111-year history.
Monson struggled mightily in recruiting and was handcuffed by severe NCAA sanctions brought on by a massive academic fraud scandal under coach Clem Haskins.
During Monson's seven-plus years on campus, Williams Arena devolved from one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten to a lifeless, half-full facility in which opponents dominated.
Athletics director Joel Maturi was criticized for the timing of his decision to dismiss Monson and knew he needed a big name to come in and breathe some life into a moribund program.
He considered Detroit Pistons coach and Gopher alum Flip Saunders and former Utah coach Rick Majerus among others, but quickly settled on Smith after flying to Lexington to meet with him on Thursday morning. Smith will be introduced at a noon press conference on Friday, a move that Saunders says puts immediate pressure on Iowa and Michigan, two other Big Ten schools with coaching vacancies.
"Tubby's a proven winner. He's a great communicator," Saunders said, adding that he's relieved not to be asked about the Minnesota job anymore. "For Minnesota, it's going to be great for them. It puts a little more pressure on Iowa and Michigan from the standpoint of what kind of coach do they end up bringing in?"
Barnhart said he will move quickly to fill one of the premiere jobs in the country.
"Mitch Barnhart and I have talked extensively about the process for hiring a new coach of Kentucky basketball," Todd said. "Mitch has a proven track record of bringing quality coaches to Kentucky that have immediate success and positive impact. I have every confidence in his ability to hire the right person for Kentucky and I am excited about moving our program forward."