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Commentary: Kentucky fans not happy with Tubby

Recent three-game losing streak had manic depressive fans pushing panic button in Lexington

January 23, 2006

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By their very nature, the fan bases of sports teams have manic depressive tendencies.

That is especially so for a following as vast and as emotionally committed as the fans of the Kentucky Wildcats' men's basketball team.

Still, on the WE'RE UP!!!!! ... no we're dooowwnnnnn scale of UK fandom, I don't think I've ever seen a winter quite like this.

A week ago with Kentucky in the midst of an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak (the Cats have since won two straight) a whopping three full columns of letters to the editor were in the paper. The letters' theme, overwhelmingly, was the perceived decline and fall of UK basketball.

Well, that and the alleged ineptitude of the current UK coach.

Lexington's Jacob Thompson forecast that "Tubby Smith will never be able to win another national championship at UK."

Ed Watts of Riverside, Ohio, proclaimed his intention to switch his allegiance to Duke. "Wake up UK, we need a coach," he wrote.

Gayle Hamblin of Pensacola, Fla., opined that Smith "just does not have the intestinal fortitude to admit that he is not a very good coach."

Anthony Thomas of Auburn, Ky., wrote "my fear is UK will be a thing of the past if changes are not made."

You couldn't turn on a Lexington sports talk radio show or log onto a UK-oriented Internet message board without finding an avalanche of Kentucky fans declaring in the most emotional terms that UK basketball was in free fall.

Which, frankly, I've found to be fascinating. In the first half of the season, the Cats were often downright painful to watch.

Still, you'd think a coach and a program that entered this season with the best winning percentage in the country over the past three years might have banked enough goodwill with its fan base to weather one bad half-season.

"It's just been unbelievable," said a local talk show host with some insight into what it's like when you are in the eye of the hurricane that is coaching basketball at Kentucky.

Said former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall: "You'd think coming off three really good years, that would count for something."

Of course, the rub is that UK, for all the winning it has been doing the past three years, has not played on the final weekend of the college basketball season since it won its most recent national title in 1998.

The phrase I kept reading in my e-mail from disgruntled UK fans was that Smith's tournament record at UK - eight NCAA appearances, six sweet 16s, four elite eights, one Final Four, one national title (but not with "his players")- is not "Kentucky good."

Having listened to this for two months now, I've reached two conclusions about a segment of the Kentucky fan base.

1.) Some got spoiled into unrealistic expectations by Kentucky's magical late 1990s NCAA tourney success;

2.) Some do not have a realistic understanding of their own program's actual history.

So let's review.

Since 1958, Kentucky - with all its vast resources - has won a whopping three NCAA titles. One (1978), two (1996), three (1998).

From 1959 to 1974, UK made all of one Final Four appearance. One.

UK began playing basketball in 1903. In all that time, I would say the only points in history that UK has unquestionably been the best program in all of college hoops was during Adolph Rupp's golden era of 1946-54 and for those years in the late 1990s when Rick Pitino/Tubby Smith coached the Cats to three straight national title games. That's 11 seasons out of 103.

Those who say that being Kentucky means always being clearly the No. 1 program are just setting themselves up to be perpetually unhappy. None of which is to suggest that all criticism of Smith is unfair. When you're making $2 million a year to coach, it's part of the gig.

Fact is, I understand those who feel the coach's defense-first system and less than throttle-wide-open approach to offense are not fully in the fast-breaking Kentucky tradition.

Still, even allowing for the mood swings inherent in being a sports fan, the level of complaining of this early season seems way, way out of proportion to the recent performance of the Kentucky basketball program.

Hall says it's self-defeating, too.

"I think Kentucky fans would be surprised how opposing coaches will see that the stuff on the Internet and in the papers gets to players Kentucky is trying to recruit," said the former UK coach. "I don't understand how Kentucky fans feel they can do this stuff and not hurt the program."

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