Kentucky, Smith, Minnesota all winners in move

ST. LOUIS -- Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive spoke for the rest of us when describing his reaction to the news that Tubby Smith was leaving Kentucky for Minnesota.

"I was speechless," Slive said Thursday from the Edward Jones Dome.

On the shock scale, this was a 16-seed over a 1-seed. In a sport where coaches are always craving bigger paychecks and better jobs and more prestige, this was a clear (and voluntary) swan dive down the ranks by Smith. You just don't see coaches leave one of the flagship programs for a school that hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game in a decade -- and cheated the last time it did win.

But after you get past the shock value, understand something: This is a good move. For everyone.

Smith never was at peace with the fishbowl existence in Lexington, going back to his hiring in May 1997. As a columnist working in Louisville at the time, I went to Smith's tiny hometown of Scotland, Md., to do a feel-good story on Smith's roots -- only to find that Tubby had told his family not to talk to any reporters. The walls were already up.

The past couple of years have seemed to border on misery for Smith. It takes a big personality or a big winner to thrive in a big job like Kentucky's, and Smith has been neither of late. I've seen happier TSA employees working a double shift.

Smith was tired of Kentucky, and the vast majority of Kentucky fans were tired of him. As this season spiraled into disappointment -- as it did last season -- public opinion turned irrevocably.

Now, both get a fresh start without the other.

And Big Ten midget Minnesota, which most folks thought would be rummaging through the bargain bin, lands a coach who is accomplished beyond the Gophers' wildest dreams.

Smith has the satisfaction of saying he walked away on his own terms. His swan dive is cushioned by a plush bed of Golden Gopher cash. He'll be coaching in the shadow of four pro franchises, and at a school that will probably throw a parade for every NCAA berth. And his grinderball style of play is well-suited for the Big Ten.

Kentucky, a program with a complex and at times unhappy racial legacy, is spared having to fire its first African-American coach. Smith would not have been dismissed this spring unless he refused athletic director Mitch Barnhart's request to shake up his stagnant staff -- but he could well have been a lame-duck coach next year. (If center Randolph Morris goes pro and the Wildcats do not land hotshot recruits Patrick Patterson and Jai Lucas, they'll be a bad team.)

Thus a potentially joyless and tense season is averted in a win-win divorce. And the one thing that should not come out of it is a demonization of the Kentucky fan base.

Over the next couple of days you'll probably read and hear some sweeping generalizations about the unreasonable Big Blue fans. About how they ran off a guy with a great record. About their rough treatment of a class act.

As a Kentucky resident who has often been critical of Kentucky fans, I'm here to tell you that would be unfair and inaccurate.

A few facts:
• It isn't like Smith was yanked through the spin cycle like Mike Shula. Ten years in one place is a pretty long run.

• Smith's record in recent years, while good, has not been great. And great expectations come with history's winningest program -- a program that pays its coach an average of $2.5 million per season and has seven national championship banners hanging in Rupp Arena.

• This season marked the longest Final Four-less streak in school history -- no appearances since winning the national title in 1998, Smith's first year, with talent recruited by Rick Pitino.

• It also marked a second straight year without winning any SEC hardware -- not a division title, not a conference title, not a conference tournament title. Finishing fourth in the SEC East is not what Kentucky has in mind, and neither are five double-digit-loss seasons in the last eight.

They wouldn't be happy with that résumé at North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, UCLA or Indiana, either.

But beyond the lunatic fringe -- and it's probably true that Kentucky's lunatic fringe is thicker than most -- this was a supportive fan base during a pretty lousy season.

The proof of that was on display in Rupp on Feb. 20, when the Wildcats played LSU.

Kentucky came in reeling, having lost three in a row. LSU was in the midst of a terrible season and was playing without All-America center Big Baby Davis. This had mismatch written all over it.

Instead, LSU raced out to a 16-point first-half lead. I fully expected the UK fans to drop a chorus of boos on the home team, given its blasé performance in a must-win situation against a very beatable opponent.

There were none. Zero. Instead, the fans helped energize a Kentucky comeback victory. The place roared with positive noise throughout the second half.

This is what you'll get when you're the Kentucky coach: More scrutiny than you've ever had in your career, but also more passionate support.

That would seem to be the only thing in the Wildcats' favor when it comes to an inevitable courtship of Florida coach Billy Donovan. There is no good reason for Donovan to leave Gainesville for UK -- where he was an assistant to Rick Pitino for five years -- other than this:

The defending national champion Gators filled every seat in their 12,000-seat arena for only one nonconference game: Ohio State. Kentucky, meanwhile, put more than 23,000 in the stands for its Midnight Madness practice.

So if Donovan wants to go to a place where basketball is king, he'd go to Kentucky. If he'd rather stay at the empire he's built from the ground up, he says no and the Wildcats move on with their search.

The good news for Barnhart is that he should have a window to make sense of this search. If he goes after Donovan -- and Kentucky fans would never forgive him if he didn't at least try -- he probably won't be able to talk to him until early April, as the Gators are strong favorites to make the Final Four.

Meanwhile, that would give Barnhart time to get Plans B, C, D, E and F in order. Expect his list to include guys like Marquette's Tom Crean, Texas' Rick Barnes, Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Georgetown's John Thompson III, Villanova's Jay Wright and Ohio State's Thad Matta.

Only problem is, there are reasons why each of them might turn down Kentucky, and reasons why Kentucky's interest might be lukewarm for each.

Fact is, only one man other than Donovan has both a slam-dunk résumé and a thorough understanding of the Kentucky job. That man is Rick Pitino.

Don't count on history repeating itself. But if you can switch sides in America's most heated rivalry once, why not twice?

We'd all be speechless again if that happened.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.