SCOTT: Are Smith, Heath on their way out?

For those outside of Kentucky, it's hard to imagine how Wildcat basketball fans would want to get rid of coach Tubby Smith.

For the rest of us who aren't living in the midst of Kentucky's passion for basketball, we tend to see Smith as someone who has been one of the most successful coaches in the history of both the SEC and college basketball.


Here's what it looks like from the outside:


-- With 384 career victories entering this final weekend of SEC play, Smith ranked fifth all-time among all coaches in their first 16 seasons.


-- With a. 700 winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament, Smith ranks sixth among all active coaches.


-- In 10 seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats have won one national championship and Smith's teams have won or shared five regular-season SEC title, seven East Division titles and five SEC Tournament championships.


-- No SEC coach has won more divisional titles. Former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and current Florida coach Billy Donovan are tied for second with four each.


-- Smith's regular-season titles rank third all-time behind former Kentucky coaches, Adolph Rupp (27) and Joe B. Hall (eight).


-- Smith's five SEC Tournament titles are tied for second with Pitino and former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson. Rupp won 13 SEC championships.


That's what we see. Kentucky fans see things differently. Like Alabama football fans, LSU baseball fans, Tennessee women's basketball fans, Georgia gymnastic fans and Arkansas track and field fans, the expectations are different for Wildcat basketball fans.


Even during seasons when Kentucky isn't what it used to be, Kentucky is still "Kentucky" and anything less than a national championship is something of a disappointment.


While outsiders will point to Smith's national championship and his SEC titles, the average Kentucky supporter can counter with the fact that the Wildcats haven't won a national title since 1998, Smith's first season at Kentucky. They are also quick to remind that Smith won with Pitino's players.   


As for those SEC championships, Wildcat fans don't need to look in a media guide to know Smith hasn't won the SEC Tournament since 2004 -- which is practically ancient history for Kentucky basketball.


While we see quality players who would help most any SEC team, Kentucky see a dwindling level of talent, a series of recruiting mistakes and losses and several players (Rajon Rondo?) who just never seemed to mesh with Smith's style.


Those looking in from a distance see a hard-nosed determined coach while devoted Wildcat fans wonder if Smith's stubborn refusal to change or adapt has sapped the joy and energy out of the program. They see the players playing hard, but not with energy and enthusiasm.


While it's easy to argue that many Kentucky fans are unrealistic in an age when the SEC has never been better top to bottom, those expectations are also partly responsible for making Kentucky basketball what it is.


Smith's status is the No. 1 topic of interest in Kentucky these days. If letters to the newspapers, calls to radio shows and message boards postings are correct, about 60 percent or more of Kentucky fans want Smith out and 40 percent or less want him to stay. That might not seem like a big difference, but it's more than enough to get a President elected or a coach dismissed.


The situation also has forced athletic director Mitch Barnhart and university president Lee T. Todd to address Smith's status publicly.


"Our fans' lofty expectations for this program, which I share, have not changed," Barnhart said in a statement released to the media. "However, history tells us that the college basketball season can change quite a bit between February and March. If the close games we've lost in February become victories during the tournaments, then this team has a chance to play up to its potential, which is what all of us as Wildcat fans want."


Not exactly a roaring declaration of support.


Todd's statement said, "I completely agree with Mitch Barnhart's comments on this situation. Our thinking is very much in synch about waiting until the end of the season before reviewing any program.


"We still have a lot of basketball to play. Always the optimist, I'm hopeful this team finds a way to play up to its potential and make a strong run in the tournaments and I hope our fans would support the players and coaches in that effort."


Both Barnhart and Todd must remain cognizant of the fact that Kentucky is contractually obligated to pay Smith a $1,500,000 retention bonus as of April 3. Smith's current contract runs through 2010-11 and his reported compensation during that span is expected to be $8.8 million.


If Kentucky fires Smith, the university would then be obligated to pay him $1 million for each season remaining on his contract.


Instead of forcing a decision by the university, perhaps Smith should initiate a parting of the ways. That's the opinion of Rich Bozich, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal who recently suggested in a column that the only happy ending to this complicated scenario is for Smith to move on to a job at another college job or the NBA.


As for Smith himself, what is he supposed to say publicly that could help the situation? How should he address his critics?


"Well, they're always out there," Smith said on a recent SEC teleconference. "The only way you can keep them away is to win. Certainly losing four out of five doesn't help. But, you know, we've played some tough teams. Alabama and Tennessee and Vanderbilt are three of the tougher places to play in this league. We've been in the hunt. We just haven't been able to finish those games."


Even outsiders can see that.




Did Saturday's 82-67 road win at Vanderbilt save Arkansas coach Stan Heath's job?


Maybe it should, but it probably wasn't enough according to media reports.


These things are simply not as easy as they might seem from outside, but, like the Kentucky situation, Arkansas fans see the landscape surrounding the program from a different perspective.


Critics points out that Heath entered the season with a 61-57 record, 24-40 in SEC games with only one NCAA Tournament appearance. Heath supporters will counter with the argument that Heath inherited a program that had fallen on hard times under former coach Nolan Richardson.


The critics would then come back with the opinion that things weren't as bad when Heath took over as Heath would like for people to believe and it's taken him too long to turn things around. Supporters would point to the fact that Heath's lone NCAA Tournament appearance came last year and the Razorbacks might have the SEC's best freshman in guard Patrick Beverley and could return as many as six of this season's juniors.


Somewhere in between the criticism and the support, the Razorbacks are 18-12 and 7-9 in the SEC following Saturday's victory at Vanderbilt. While Vanderbilt appears to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas is still hanging on the underside of the bubble entering this week's SEC Tournament.


According to media reports, the Razorbacks have suffered from a lack of team chemistry and tensions among players have run high over the second half of the season, particularly after an 83-72 home loss to Tennessee on Feb. 24.


Meanwhile, several media reports out of the state of Arkansas, led by the state's most influential newspaper the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, have reported that Heath will most likely be fired if the Razorbacks do not reach the NCAA Tournament.


Other sources who spoke to the Democrat-Gazette insist those reports are not accurate and that nothing will be decided until the season is over.


Athletic director Frank Broyles, who recently announced he will retire at the end of this calendar years, issued a statement that read, "As is our customary procedure, Coach Heath and the basketball program will be evaluated following the conclusion of the season. We have two regular-season games remaining as well as the SEC Tournament.

We continue to support Coach Heath and our team as they compete throughout the remainder of the season."


Then again, Broyles might not be making that decision because of his lame duck status. That decision could fall to Arkansas Chancellor John White, who is known to be one of Heath's primary supporters.


You can make an argument either way for and against Heath, but the one thing White and Broyles will have to address is the dwindling support among fans and boosters. Similar to the Kentucky situation, sometimes concerns over fan support can outweigh what a president, chancellor or athletic director wants to do.


After last week's 67-58 home win over Mississippi State, a reported asked Heath if he took any time to revel in the post-game celebration.


"Nope. I'm letting you guys concentrate on that," Heath said. "One thing I learned a long time ago is you coach every game like it's your last game."




The calendar says spring starts later this month, but in many Southern states spring is already in bloom. The bluebirds are making nests, daffodils are peeking out, pear trees are budding and half the SEC is involved in spring practice.


In addition to LSU, Tennessee kicked off its spring practice on Feb. 22, followed by Mississippi State on Feb. 26, Auburn on Feb. 27, Ole Miss on March 2 and Georgia on Monday. Vanderbilt start next Tuesday and the rest of the SEC will be busy by the end of the month.


Auburn has done this for the past three seasons and more programs are following suit, believing that an early start gives injured players more time to heal. Some programs are simply trying to complete their spring practice before Easter on April 8th because some schools take breaks around that time. Then again, teams with wholesale coaching programs, such as Alabama, need the extra time before spring ball to get all the coaches on the same page.


Ultimately, when you practice in the spring doesn't mean near as much as how you practice in the spring. With all the restrictions placed on spring practice in the past 20 years coaches are now hard pressed to make the most out of their limited time with players.


"For me, this is probably THE most exciting time of the year when you start really putting the team back together on the field," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who has never started spring practice this early before. "It's a little bit shorter off-season program for us this year because of the way the schedule fell with Easter and spring break. There are a number of teams around the country that have started this week or will start next week and I'm eager to see how it works out. One of the consequences that come out of starting early, if you did have an injury you would have a chance to get a young man back perhaps before the season started. So some plusses and minuses. It does squeeze us just a little bit coming off of recruiting, but our coaches have done a good job of getting themselves ready for spring practice."


Even with the limited schedules, coaches still love spring practice. There are no games to prepare for, no games to win or lose, no games to interrupt their desire to teach, push, pull and provoke and see who will step up.


"Spring practice is about players, not necessarily plays. Who can play is what we're looking for, who can run, hit, catch, throw, cover and do those kinds of things," Fulmer said. "Also, spring practice is about toughness and about finding those guys who have that innate toughness -- regardless of the position they play -- that can mark a good football player. Who can be special, some dynamics, finding guys that can help you that way and then also what role they are going to play. There are a number of players, especially young players, that need to find their place and need to find their role on this football team. So it's a very, very important time."




Richard Scott is a Birmingham based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at

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