- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- Fire Tubby Smith?
How do you deep-six a guy who won you a national championship, who wins nearly eight of out 10 games he coaches, who gets rave reviews from his peers? How do you stick a buyout fork in a distinguished 10-year Kentucky career that has lasted longer than beloved (pre-Louisville, of course) Rick Pitino's tenure in Lexington and includes exactly zero NCAA penalties?
You don't. You can't except at Kentucky, where, said Wildcats junior guard Joe Crawford, "people expect us to be in the Final Four every year."
Those expectations, no longer realistic in an age of Winthrops and George Masons, are why Smith should think long and hard about a change in hoops venue. That's right: He should think about walking away from Kentucky before it walks away from him.
He won't, of course. He can't. To resign at season's end would be, in the Tubby universe, the same as admitting defeat. He would be giving in to the growing number of vocal critics who ask -- no, demand -- why the winningest program in the history of Division I basketball can do no better than a No. 8 seed (for the second consecutive season) and a 67-58 grinder win against a flawed Villanova team Friday evening in the first round of the NCAA Tournament?
If you know anything about Smith, you know he is genetically incapable of signing that sort of resignation letter. Pride, stubbornness and a will as strong as a steel I-beam are part of his personality DNA. They'll have to fire him first. And if his program doesn't start producing some signature wins and a few more rafter banners, they just might.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart sat almost directly behind the Wildcats' bench Friday night, a short baseline jumper away from the man whose job security dominates the conversation in that basketball-crazed commonwealth. Barnhart has already issued two recent statements regarding Smith's UK future. The first one was a vague endorsement, the second one was considerably stronger, but stopped noticeably short of saying Smith would be back next season.
Barnhart could be waiting to see if Smith will agree to retool his coaching staff at season's end. He could be waiting to see if the Wildcats can beat No. 1 seeded Kansas in Sunday's game -- or, at the very least, not get humiliated by a Jayhawks team that defeated UK by 27 at Allen Fieldhouse in January 2006. "We had no chance," is how Smith described the blowout loss.
Or maybe Barnhart has already made up his mind: Smith is coming back, but he'll be on Dean Vernon Wormer "double-secret probation."
If Barnhart paid attention to Smith during Friday night's win, he saw a coach who coaches as if his per diem money is at stake. Smith's scowl was in full attack mode midway through the first half. Those wild eyes of his nearly popped from their sockets when freshman guard Jodie Meeks tried to take a seat on the bench before Smith was done making a point. And I'm surprised Smith's expensive loafers didn't leave potholes in the United Center floor after every angry stomp. My gawd, the man competes.
Nobody has ever questioned Smith's desire to win a ballgame. Or how to coach a ballgame. That isn't the issue. The issue is his dwindling level of support within the Big Blue Nation. To put it bluntly, Kentucky's vast fan base is running out of reasons to give him unconditional love.
There is no margin of error at a place like Kentucky. Well, there was when Smith won a national title in 1998 -- his rookie season in Lexington -- but that's long gone. The place is the college basketball equivalent of Notre Dame football. Its past is always handcuffed to its present. There is no escape from its history or its expectations.
"I think that's always going to be there," said Crawford.
No program has more NCAA Tournament appearances, played in more NCAA Tournament games, or recorded more NCAA Tournament victories than Kentucky. The program has now won its past 17 first-round games.
But the Wildcats haven't won a national title or reached the Final Four since '98. Still, as recently as 2004 they were a No. 1 seed. Now they're slumming at No. 8.
Kentucky entered the NCAA Tournament with six losses in its past nine games. The Wildcats were unranked in both polls, 0-7 against ranked teams, 0-for-their-last-6 against Florida and 0-for-their-last-4 against Vanderbilt. No wonder Smith should consider hiring a food taster.
There's more. Depending on whose version you believe, recruiting has been somewhere between a minor and major disaster. Whatever the case, it's been below Kentucky standards. And it figures that Pitino's Louisville team humiliated Stanford in the opening round on UK's home floor at Rupp Arena.
Meanwhile, Smith was sweating out the nine-point win against a Villanova team that basically had two players who knew how to insert a ball through a hoop. Smith said Villanova was "a very good team a very talented team," but he was just being polite. Villanova shot 32.7 percent from the field, partly because of Kentucky's defense and partly because it doesn't have enough scorers. Kansas won't have that problem.
As usual, the win didn't satisfy everyone in blue. As Kentucky held a five-point lead with 96 seconds remaining, a fan sitting a few behind Barnhart yelled to Smith, "You are blowing this game!"
This is why Smith should bolt. Not because of some knucklehead fan, but because Barnhart might be listening to the knucklehead fan. In some cases -- and you can ask former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher about this -- it's just time to move on. It's nothing personal, it's just time.
Ten years at Kentucky are like dog years at almost any other program. Sometimes you can stay too long and not even know it. The fans grow bored, or spoiled, or in Kentucky's case, both.
"There can be those negative things that will send you into a tailspin if you allow them," said Smith after Friday night's win.
He was talking about the criticism of his team, but it could have applied to him too. The Wildcats have won 22 games, but it has been a trying, often unsatisfying season.
Smith probably isn't going anywhere, but given the fickle nature of Kentucky, a nationally televised beatdown by Kansas could change all that. Smith said his Wildcats have "an unbelievable amount of talent" -- and they'll need it against a Jayhawks squad that hasn't lost since Feb. 3.
Win or lose Sunday, Kentucky's Bobby Perry knows what he'd tell Barnhart about his coach. He'd tell him Smith is a truthful, fair man who isn't allergic to work and craves success for his players. He'd tell him those same players have Smith's back. And then he'd tell him, "To let somebody go with that type of character and that type of heart, I think would be a terrible mistake."
You have to admire Perry's loyalty and candor, but Smith is doomed sooner or later. The bigger mistake for Smith would be to stay and take another season of the second guessing, of the criticism, and of carefully worded statements from your AD. By then, it won't matter.
At least now Smith could leave on his terms. A year from now, he might not have that choice.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
11hEric D. Williams