As most of you know, we here at Kentucky Sports Radio try to keep our coverage of sports and most definitely this blog, lighthearted. To me, sports are meant to entertain and as soon as they become a burden on your life or something that makes you legitimately angry, it is time to take a step back and ask yourself why you are a fan. When I watch the World Cup, I am astounded at the fans of these countries who live and die with their team. But the counter to that is the fanaticism that leads to events like the 1994 Colombian soccer player who was killed after kicking in an own goal against the United States. To me, there is enough seriousness in life that sports need not be part of it.
Thus when I see the anger that infuses the discussions about Tubby Smith, I am genuinely perplexed. Longtime reader of the KSR Radio blog, Mike Jones, commented today that the blog was less fun recently, in large part due to the infusion of Tubby haters. I agree with what Mike says but I dont think that it is just the fact that these folks are anti-Tubby that makes them difficult to understand. You can think Tubby is not a great coach, maybe even not the coach for Kentucky, without thinking that your goal in life should be to get him fired and to use rhetoric that suggests that it should be the focus of one’s life. Put more succintly, you can think Tubby shouldnt be the Coach at Kentucky without turning into an angry, ranting fanatic.
Tubby Smith is a very good coach. I think Tubby Smith is a great coach, but am willing to respect those that dont think he reaches that plateau. But I dont think the fact that he is a very good coach is truly debatable. In my defense of Tubby, I will lay low on statistics. For every positive statistic about Tubby (more 20 win seasons in a row than any Kentucky coach), there is a negative (more 10 loss seasons), and more often than not these statistics have explanations that are different than the merits of the arguments they are used to buffer (teams play more games now and the SEC is a better conference than it was during Rupp/Hall years). For all his eccentricities, Tom Gray, who posts here often can come up with any stat that shows Tubby is bad and counter with one that shows that he is good. And I am sure others can do the same in reverse. Every statistic must be considered in context, and thus the best cases for each side are often mixed when considered in this light.
For me, Tubby is a great coach because for his nine years as coach of the Wildcats, the team has entered the NCAA Tournament with a legitimate chance to win it five times (98, 99, 03, 04, 05). What is a legitimate chance to win it? Any number one or two seed or a lower seed that is charging (like Florida this year). Thus when the NCAA Tournament starts, over half of Tubby’s years you could truly believe that Kentucky could win it. Tubby has been the number one overall seed in the tournament twice in those years….only UCONN and Duke have done it more. Under Tubby, the Cats had the best conference regular season IN THE HISTORY OF THE SCHOOL. Read that phrase again. Never has any UK team gone undefeated in the regular season and the tournament, except one team….a Tubby Smith coached UK team.
Also during that time, Kentucky’s regular season record has been among the top 4 for that nine year period….and in the last five years it is second. Now some of that is due to the SEC being a weaker conference than some of the other conferences….but Tubby Smith does play a hard non-conference schedule and the Kentucky out of conference schedule is usually ranked in the top 10. Billy Beane, the statistician turned baseball General Manager, who believes in using science and statistics in evaluating baseball players once said, (and i am paraphrasing) “if you play enough games, the best of the best rises to the top….both players and managers. But in a seven game series, randomness can take that away and the best team doesnt always win.” If that is true in baseball in a seven game series, it is certainly true in the one and done college basketball world. Thus if you are only truly looking at coaching ability, regular seasons are likely the best indicator….and Tubby has had an amazing run in recent regular seasons.
Now what is the counter? Most will mention only one Final 4….they usually follow this up by saying “and it was with Pitino’s kids.” While the second part of that argument is silly (Edwards, Sheppard, Mills, Evans, Padgett were not exactly the recruits that changed the face of America….plus no one says Roy Williams won with “Doherty’s kids”), the first is not. Why hasnt there been more Final 4s? I think that is a legitimate question. But two things need to be remembered. When the “Final 4” was originated, what if the NCAA had instead decided to have the “Final 8”? It is not a silly thought….that is what they do for college football (with the BCS) and college baseball (with the College World Series). Had the NCAA done that, Tubby would have reached this “hallowed ground” four of his nine years….more than any school during that time than Michigan St and the same as Duke and UCONN.
But they didnt…they did the Final 4….and Tubby has only made it once. But I ask you to think back for a second to 2005. You remember the game against Michigan St. How many of you think that Patrick Sparks was fouled on that three point shot? I do. Well lets say the referee calls that foul. Tubby makes the Final 4. Is he a better coach? Or think about UCLA this year….Gonzaga throws the ball away at the end of the Sweet 16 game and UCLA wins on a gift and makes it to the Final game. If that throw doesnt occur, is Ben Braun a worse coach? Or look at Rick Pitino. Kevin Pittsnogle took a three toward the end of regulation that rattled out. Lets say it went in. Is Rick Pitino a worse coach? No….these games were decided….at least to some degree, by randomness. A Pitino career at Louisville that included one Final 8, no other Sweet 16s and two NIT berths would be considered by many a failure. But the one Final 4 somehow sparkles Pitino in folks’ eyes. However in all five years, going into the tournament, Kentucky was a higher ranked team and in all but one year, Kentucky finished farther in the Big Dance (if the Ville even made the dance). Yet most think Pitino the better coach. The difference between Louisville making it and Kentucky not….randomness. The Final 4 is very important…and if in 3-5 years there has been no Final 4 (and the randomness has had more time to even out), then the argument gains more and more validity. But at this point, the fact that Kentucky has lost its last three Final 8 games is….in large part to me…..an example of the importance of randomness.
None of this is to say that there has not been problems. Kentucky’s recruiting has truly suffered recently. I dont think we need the best of the best and I sometimes think Tubby does better with recruits like Fitch and Daniels or Meeks and Jasper, than the top names. But there is no excuse for some of the classes of recent years. Bobby Perry is the only Senior that should be a Kentucky player and the rising Sophomore class was dreadful. In addition, Tubby-coached teams play a style of basketball that allows them to compete with teams that are better (see UCONN this year) but also lose to teams that are worse (see UAB three years ago). That is a dangerous way to go in the tournament….as seen by some of the upsets.
But ultimately when ranking coaches, I can only find a few that are certainly superior to Tubby. Coach K, Roy Williams, Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun and Tom Izzo have proved to me over time that they are the top tier. I put Tubby in the next tier with Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan, Jim Boeheim, Bill Self, Bruce Weber, Bob Huggins and others. In that next tier you can rank people as you wish, but the career accomplishments are similar. These are the best of the best in my view. And Tubby is in their club.
But lets say that you disagree….lets say that you think Smith is not an elite coach. Well who that we KNOW is an elite coach is going to come here? Coach K….nope….Williams….nope….Olson….nope….Calhoun….nope….Izzo will never leave Michigan his home state….Pitino….burned that bridge….Donovan….not after the national championship….Self…nope…..Weber….likely not….Huggins….we dont want him. Everyone else that people mention (Few, Matta, etc) have NEVER WON ANYTHING OF SUBSTANCE. No one has disappointed more in the tourney than Few…..Matta can recruit….but besides his great Xavier run a few years ago, he is still an unknown quantity. There are certainly a number of coaches that could MAYBE be as good as Tubby, but there is no one that we KNOW will be as good or better who will come here.
If Kentucky has one or two more seasons like this past one, the fans voice will be heard and Tubby will probably decide to move on. He may do that any way. But if he doesnt, the next two years will be better. Next year’s team will be an improvement from last year’s and the 08 team will be one of the nation’s best. And ultimately the reason why will be Tubby Smith. There is no doubt that mistakes have been made in Tubby’s tenure. But unlike at many schools (UNC, UL), the valleys have not been all that low relatively speaking. Last year was the first year he didnt win an SEC regular season or tournament title. The highs have not been what we have always wanted, but they havent been chopped liver.
The case for Tubby is simply this….in the new world of college basketball, Tubby Smith is a top tier coach who has succeeded while representing the University in the best possible light. There is no one else out there who will come to Kentucky that we know will do that. That makes him the best man for the Kentucky job.