- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Tubby Smith, who led the Kentucky Wildcats to the NCAA championship in his first season but spent the next nine years trying to live up to the school's storied reputation, accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota on Thursday.
Smith, who had four years remaining on his contract at Kentucky, will be introduced at a 1 p.m. ET news conference Friday in Minneapolis. Kentucky will still honor the $1.5 million incentive bonus that Smith is due on April 3.
Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said Smith agreed to a seven-year deal to coach the Golden Gophers worth $1.8 million a year.
"You always want to be wanted," Smith told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader in a story posted on its Web site Thursday night. "You know they have a need."
Smith, speaking by phone on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on
ESPN2 on Friday, said a new challenge was the main reason for the move.
"We all need to be challenged," Smith said. "In the Big Ten,
it's as tough as there is for a conference in the country. This
will give me a new life, a new start and I'm anxious, eager and
excited about it."
Smith informed Kentucky players and athletics director Mitch Barnhart about his decision earlier Thursday and also phoned former Minnesota coach Dan Monson, who was fired in November, to tell him he was accepting the job.
"On behalf of the University of Kentucky, I'd like to express sincere appreciation to Tubby Smith, his family and his staff," Barnhart said in a statement. "Tubby has always put a priority on the growth of the student-athlete while representing the Commonwealth with class, and we thank him for that. We wish him the very best at the University of Minnesota. They are getting a solid coach and a great person."
According to sources, Smith called Monson for an education about the opening, Minnesota's basketball facilities, the atmosphere around the program, and how the job compares to others in the Big Ten. The program was on probation for five of Monson's seven seasons after an academic scandal under former coach Clem Haskins.
Monson cleaned up the program, but the Gophers didn't win; they were 9-22 this season, 3-13 in the Big Ten.
During his decade at Kentucky, where he replaced Rick Pitino, Smith was 263-83 and reached the NCAA Tournament every season, winning the national title in 1998 -- Smith's first season in Lexington. But the Wildcats have not been back to the Final Four since, the longest drought in school history.
"Tubby is an outstanding individual and he's been a credit to the conference and a credit to the game," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "We definitely wish him well. Kentuucky has a great basketball tradition, and that great tradition will continue as the university moves ahead."
This season, in which the Wildcats finished 22-12 overall, 9-7 in the SEC and lost to Kansas in the second round of the tournament, saw a growing faction of Kentucky fans calling for Smith's ouster.
"Ever since my senior year of high school, there was always speculation that he'd be gone," the Houston Rockets' Chuck Hayes, who played for Smith at Kentucky from 2001-05 told The Associated Press. "After every season, there were always rumors. I thought it was just rumors again this year, people talking."
Earlier this month, before the Wildcats played their first-round NCAA Tournament game, Barnhart issued a statement supporting Smith, saying "Tubby's our basketball coach."
But Barnhart also said that he and Smith would sit down after the season to discuss potential changes -- and declined to say whether any of Smith's assistants might be replaced.
On Mike & Mike in the Morning, Smith said he was certain he would have
finished the final four years of his contract at Kentucky despite
sniping by some fans and boosters.
"That was not an issue, whether I was going to be the coach. I
had four years on my contract. That had nothing to do with it,"
Meanwhile, while watching the defending national champion Gators practice in St. Louis in preparation for their Sweet 16 game against Butler on Friday, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley did not seem particularly concerned if Kentucky pursues coach Billy Donovan.
When asked whether he expected Kentucky to contact Donovan, Foley replied, "It's a free world. There's nothing to prevent them from doing that."
"We're trying to win an NCAA championship. He's our coach and he's been tremendously loyal for a long time. That's all I'm going to say about it."
Donovan and Foley have been discussing a contract extension but have not agreed to one. Foley said he expected it to get done.
Donovan had not heard about Smith's decision when approached by a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter just before the start of practice Thursday. When asked about it, Donovan said, "I know you have to ask me that, but right now I'm here to coach my team and win a national championship."
According to sources, Marquette coach Tom Crean, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Memphis coach John Calipari, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Notre Dame's Mike Brey, Texas' Rick Barnes, Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie and Villanova's Jay Wright are expected to be candidates for what is one of the few premier jobs in men's college basketball.
Barnhart said he will immediately start an "exhaustive, comprehensive and focused" search for the next coach.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Senior writer Pat Forde and The Associated Press also contributed to this report.