In a shocking development last week, Tubby Smith stepped down as head coach of Kentucky's basketball team. What was equally shocking was that he chose to take his talents and fill Minnesota's coaching vacancy.
With Smith moving north, one of the most high profile jobs in college sports has opened up. Several rumors quickly followed. Many coaches have been listed as possibilities based on fan rumors and inside sources. Only Mitch Barnhart and Dr. Lee Todd know the real list of candidates. Although it's almost all speculation, most people agree that current Florida coach Billy Donovan is front runner for the job.
Donovan who led, the University of Florida to it's first national championship last season, is a former Rick Pitino player at Providence and a former assistant coach to Pitino at Kentucky. His ties to Kentucky and his recent and past success at a "football" school have made him the clear fan favorite for the position. Donovan has remained mum about the job, although never saying he isn't interested. The door has been left open, if Donovan's comments are any indication.
While most Kentucky fans believe Donovan will eventually accept the job after the Gators' season ends, there is a possibility that he will decide to remain in Gainesville, where he has built Florida into a top 10 caliber program over the last 11 years. Who are the other candidates if Donovan chooses to remain in Gainesville?
Billy Gillispie is one of the hottest names in college basketball right now. His rebuilding jobs at programs such as Texas El Paso and Texas A&M have put him among the most highly thought of young coaches in the business. A tireless worker, Gillispie has developed strong ties to the Texas high school circuit. Gillispie and Texas A&M have now reached a verbal agreement that will make him the highest paid coach in the Big 12. Would he leave his home state for the bluegrass?
Thad Matta, head coach of Ohio State, is possibly the best recruiter in the nation. Matta has mined the talent rich state of Ohio for it's best players, and even recruited quality players from the backyards of conference rivals. Even with his roster stocked with top quality talent, he continues to add more. Matta currently has his Buckeyes in the final four, after winning the Big 10 tournament a few weeks back. Matta has had success at Butler and Xavier before making the jump to the always-tough Big 10. Matta's tenacity on the recruiting trail, plus Kentucky's tradition could be a match made in big blue heaven.
John Pelphrey is one of the Unforgettables, who played for Kentucky from 1987 through 1992. Growing up in Paintsville Kentucky, Pelphrey was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball in 1987. Pelphrey went on to score 1287 (29th all time at UK) points at Kentucky and endearing himself to Wildcat fans as a fiery leader and competitor on the court. Pelphrey started his coaching career with former Kentucky head coach Eddie Sutton. Soon after, Pelphrey followed Billy Donovan to Marshall and then on to Florida. Pelphrey took the head coach job at South Alabama in 2002 where he's led them to a 60-54 record and two post season appearances (One NCAA and one NIT). His competitive drive and his love for the University of Kentucky could make him into an up and coming star in the coaching business.
After taking over the reigns at Gonzaga in 1999, Mark Few has become among the nations most respected coaches. Compiling a 211 win, 52 loss record, his win percentage ranks among the best of current active coaches. He has led Gonzaga to the Sweet 16 three times in his eight years at the university and also won the WCC tournament seven times during that same time. Few plays an up tempo style of basketball that would appeal to Wildcat fans. Few is a west coast coach, however. Would he be open to making a move to the SEC and how would his open court style fit in?
After making the 2003 Final Four behind amazing performances by Dewayne Wade, Tom Crean saw his stock as a coach rise. Leading Marquette to the post season seven out of eight years, Crean is known for his hard-nosed teams. Crean focuses on rebounding and defense. Crean is a former assistant of another former Kentucky assistant, Ralph Willard. Crean was an assistant coach at Western Kentucky before moving on to Pittsburgh with Willard. Crean also was apart of Tom Izzo's staff during his second season at Michigan State. He's learned from some of the best coaches in the business, but is Crean ready for the pressures and expectations of Kentucky?
Jay Wright is another of the numerous young coaches being mentioned for the Kentucky job. His fast paced guard oriented style would be pleasing to Wildcat fans. Wright has led Villanova to three consecutive NCAA tournaments, including the Sweet 16 in 2005 and the Elite Eight in 2006. Wright also lost to Kentucky in Tubby Smith's final victory as head coach, during the first round of the 2007 NCAA tournament. Wright was named national coach of the year by several organizations after his 2006 campaign.
Travis Ford, former Kentucky point guard, has raised his stock as a coach over the last few years. Ford led the Eastern Kentucky Colonels to the NCAA tournament in 2005 and then he took over as head man at UMass in 2006. In 2007, Ford led the Minutemen to the second round of the NIT. Ford, along with Jamal Mashburn led Kentucky to the 1993 Final Four. Ford is ranked ninth all time in assists at Kentucky and sixth in three pointers made. Ford is also third all time in free throw percentage and third in three-point percentage. Ford was a fan favorite as a player and could be a favorite as a coaching option.
Tom Izzo has spent 12 years at Michigan State, each year making the post season. For the last 10 years, he's led Michigan State to the NCAA tournament and has made at least the Sweet 16 six times in that span, including four final fours. Rebounding and defense are always strong points with Izzo's Spartan teams. In 2000, Izzo took Michigan State to the national championship behind that rugged style of play. Although Izzo doesn't always win pretty, he wins.
Rick Barnes has led his last 12 teams to the NCAA tournament and has only missed the post season one time in his 20 years as a head coach. Barnes also led Texas to the 2003 Final Four. Barnes has ties to the fertile recruiting grounds of the ACC and SEC areas and is an excellent recruiter. While Barnes does seem content with his program at Texas, moving to Kentucky could be a step up for him, if the interest is mutual.
While the rumor mill has been churning name after name, very little factual information has actually surfaced on who the actual candidates are. It has been fun to speculate, but with two very valuable recruits on the table, and the current players in limbo, Mitch Barnhart is making the decision of his career. Let's hope that he continues his excellent track record in coaching hires.