MULE': Smith's departure is mind boggling

It boggles the mind... at first blush. Don't you think?

How could a coach with a 387-145 record, a career winning percentage of .727, and a national championship on his resume' be pushed out of his job?

 

That's, of course, what happened to Tubby Smith, although he technically left Kentucky for the University of Minnesota of his own choosing.

 

But almost everyone seems to think differently – that he was shoved out. Tubby the Man was almost universally loved in Bluegrass Country. In a statewide newspaper survey a couple of years ago, an astounding 98 percent of Kentuckians expressed a favorable opinion of him.

 

However, very few fans in the United State of Basketball were happy with Tubby the Coach.

 

This is proof that Wildcat fans are the most spoiled and out-of-touch with reality: In a decade at Kentucky, Smith has a 263-83 record, a .760 victory percentage, took four teams to the Elite Eight, and earned the 1998 NCAA title.

 

Pretty impressive.

 

At any place other than Lexington, where seven banners commemorating national championship teams coached by four different men hang in Rupp Arena, where 43 Southeastern Conference titles are listed but not celebrated like they would be almost anywhere else.

 

Kentucky basketball standards are high.

 

Here's the case that Wildcat fans had a right to be disappointed in a coach they pay $2.1 million a year: Kentucky hasn't returned to the Final Four since the title team of '98, Smith's first year at UK when he inherited Rick Pitino's talent, making for the longest Kentucky drought without reaching the championship round since the inception of the NCAA tournament; a fourth-place division finish this year and an eighth seed – hardly the kind of glory that signifies Kentucky basketball; five seasons with 10 or more defeats in Kentucky's last eight seasons; 25 defeats in the last two seasons; and not a single national top 25 recruit in three years, while other SEC programs like Tennessee and Florida are prospering with athletes like Chris Lofton and Corey Brewer who wanted to play for the 'Cats but weren't seriously recruited.

 

Average at best, by Kentucky standards.

 

There's a direct correlation between 23,000 filled seats every game night and the expectations of Wildcat fans. They provide fabulous support, and they want constant contenders and occasional championships.

 

Although this comparison is between apples and oranges because college baseball can't hold a candle to college basketball in interest or money, go back one year. The disappointment with Smith by Kentucky fans is analogous to the disfavor Smoke Laval fell into with LSU baseball fans.

 

No one could sanely be expected to successfully follow Skip Bertman's program, with five national championships in the era of 11 scholarships. Laval, who was an integral part of Bertman's early tenure and who served as his right-hand assistant for the first two of those titles, did a solid job.

 

On paper, that is.

 

Laval was 210-109-1 overall and 88-60-1 in the SEC, coaching more conference victories than any other coach during his five seasons. Laval coached the Tigers to four NCAA tournaments and two College World Series.

 

Getting a college baseball team to two CWS in a five-year span usually results in a raise.

 

Laval, though, was 0-4 on that grand stage.

 

And LSU's standards in baseball had gone through the roof. Being pretty good was no longer acceptable. Neither was a coach who thought a winning record made him bulletproof despite alienating fans and media. It wasn't. Not with a new stadium on the horizon.

 

Glittering records weren't enough to retain Laval – or make Smith palatable to Kentuckians.

 

Not without championship banners.

       

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Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net.


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