Just Two Real Candidates for UK's Basketball Coach Vacancy

Tubby Smith escaped from one of college basketball's premier jobs last week, raising a question as to whether the University of Kentucky position is still so attractive that just about anyone wou

Jerry Dowling

Tubby Smith escaped from one of college basketball's premier jobs last week, raising a question as to whether the University of Kentucky position is still so attractive that just about anyone would take it.

The Wildcats are looking for a new coach at the very moment when Ohio State is back in the Final Four for the second time since the Big Blue last won a regional championship. Experts who track college basketball talent suspect that if one or two developments don't break just right for UK, the Wildcats are looking at a bad team within one or two years.

And it didn't even take a crippling scandal for UK to fall so far. Southeastern Conference programs at Florida and Tennessee have jumped way past Kentucky.

Kentucky fans and alumni simply won't put up with that, and they shouldn't have to. UK basketball is one of the signature institutions in the entire state of Kentucky. It announces Kentucky to the rest of America as the very best.

Say you like Jack Daniel's better than Maker's Mark, and a Kentuckian might accuse you of poor taste, but he won't be insulted. Say the Tennessee Volunteers are better than the Kentucky Wildcats, then prove it with the facts — now that hurts.

The heat came down on Tubby Smith for two consecutive mediocre seasons at the end of nine straight years without a Final Four appearance, the longest such streak in Kentucky history. Characteristically, Smith dissolved the situation last week without making anyone do anything unpleasant, moving on to the University of Minnesota so he wouldn't have to fire his assistants and UK wouldn't have to fire him.

If Smith could just go into Minneapolis, recruit city kids to a big-time environment, exterminate weasels who cause legal trouble every 10-12 years and go to the NCAA Tournament each season, everyone is happy. Many in the shadow of Lexington wonder why Kentucky basketball can't be happy with that much.

Which is why they're in the shadow of Lexington.

Kentucky is one of those environments in which the administration, alumni and public demand a basketball winner, rewarding those who provide it with devotion approaching religion. UK basketball is a uniquely consuming slice of America. After three or four years living in the scene, one either gives himself to it entirely or runs away screaming like his ass is on fire, desperate to retrieve his true identity.

The obsessiveness of UK basketball might gall those with any external frame of reference, but there's nothing terribly wrong with it so long as the program plays by the rules. In order for it to work, however, the man at the head of the program must be almost obtusely single-minded, to the point of coming off as a marginal human being.

As Smith left UK, no one accused him of lacking dignity and decency as a human being. And if his style of play didn't win the fans, it's as good as the next style for producing victory.

But Smith didn't cut throats. And when winning isn't merely the bottom line but the only line, throat cutting is mandatory. In this metaphorical sense, it isn't illegal — it's merely unpleasant.

Smith is said to have stayed too loyal to players and assistant coaches who didn't perform at a national championship level. That doesn't make him a bad guy or even a bad coach. It just makes him the kind of coach who won't win at the level Kentucky basketball demands.

It's fair to wonder if anyone can win at the level Kentucky demands, until you look around and find two, both rooted in the last Kentucky dynasty. When one asks if UK still is prestigious enough to draw whatever coach it wants, Louisville's Rick Pitino and Florida's Billy Donovan are the ones who come to mind.

Because Louisville and Florida are Kentucky rivals, we might be surprised if those schools grant UK permission to even talk with their coaches, though it's likely they both have special contract provisions if the UK job comes open.

Pitino and Donovan are the only two men truly qualified to take on the UK program. Third parties on behalf of UK undoubtedly have already spoken with them. The question is whether UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart can make either happen.

Bringing Pitino back over from Louisville would be a huge achievement, to say nothing of further intensifying the UK-UL rivalry after Pitino took the Louisville job in 2001. On March 23, The Louisville Courier-Journal quoted Pitino thusly: "I've got the job that I want. I'm where I want to be." Translation: He'd listen.

While guiding his defending national champion Florida team to another Final Four, Donovan has been about as honest and diplomatic about the UK job as a guy could be. At every opportunity, he's said that he would say nothing.

Donovan doesn't have to say anything. He is the hottest coach in America, and he has the best team. He owns the best basketball players in Florida.

But he'll never own Florida as he could own Kentucky. If Donovan wins the national championship every year and football coach Urban Meyer wins the national championship only every three years, Meyer is the bigger star in that environment. As the Southeastern Conference goes, Kentucky is unique as a basketball state, which is one reason its acquiescence to Florida and Tennessee on the basketball floor is so irksome.

Now, if Billy Donovan likes being in a place where he can't fill a 12,000-seat arena until January because it's still football season, then he has the right gig. If he doesn't want the heat that comes with leading the nation in attendance 19 times in the past 31 years (and finishing second every other year only because Syracuse has a larger arena), then he's not the right guy for UK.

Donovan already knows the Kentucky environment plenty well, learning it first as an assistant with Pitino's staffs and then as an opposing coach at Florida. He well knows what it would mean to coach at the school that has won national titles with four different coaches and won more games than any other college basketball team in history.

He also knows that Florida will never be Kentucky even if Florida keeps winning, because Florida can't be what Kentucky is when Kentucky is winning.

contact bill peterson: letters(at)citybeat.com

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