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Smith leaves Kentucky for Minnesota

| Friday, March 23, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS -- With Kentucky fans dogging him after another disappointing finish, Tubby Smith is bolting the bluegrass for Minnesota.

Smith will be introduced as the Golden Gophers' 16th coach at a noon news conference Friday, ending a 10-year tenure in Lexington, Ky., that seemed to be in its final days even before Minnesota contacted him.

The Wildcats went 22-12 this season and made it to the NCAA Tournament but lost to top-seeded Kansas in the second round, turning up the heat on the coach of college basketball's winningest program.

Smith led Kentucky to the national championship in his first season in 1998, but the Wildcats haven't been back to the Final Four since -- their longest drought since the NCAA Tournament began. The team has lost 10 or more games in a season five times under his watch, prompting the demanding fan base to nickname him "10-loss Tubby."

"On behalf of the University of Kentucky, I'd like to express sincere appreciation to Tubby Smith, his family and his staff," Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. "We wish him the very best at the University of Minnesota. They are getting a solid coach and a great person."

Minnesota was 9-22 this season -- the most losses in the 111-year history of the program. And it averaged just 60.6 points a game -- its lowest in 56 years. Former coach Dan Monson was forced to resign seven games into this season.

On Thursday morning, Minnesota asked for Barnhart's permission to talk to Smith, Kentucky basketball spokesman Scott Stricklin said. Smith arrived in the Twin Cities yesterday evening to take the job.

"Ever since my senior year of high school, there was always speculation that he'd be gone," said Houston Rocket Chuck Hayes, who played for Smith at Kentucky from 2001-05. "After every season, there were always rumors. I thought it was just rumors again this year, people talking."

Smith never was able live up to the standard set by the man he replaced at Kentucky.

Rick Pitino became a legend in Lexington, leading the Wildcats to three Final Fours, including the 1996 national title and the 1997 championship game, before leaving to coach the Boston Celtics.

Wildcats fans grew even more restless when Pitino returned to the state of Kentucky, leading rival Louisville to the 2005 Final Four.

"He would probably be the only guy in the nation who could keep those fans happy," Hayes said of Pitino. "Him and (Adolph) Rupp."

The criticism ramped up this season when the proud program struggled against top competition, losing handily to Memphis, North Carolina and Florida.

Smith entered the tournament on shaky ground, and his status wasn't helped when the Wildcats failed to make it out of the first weekend for the third time in four seasons.

Even so, former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall said he was surprised by news of Smith's sudden departure.

"I think Tubby Smith is not just a good coach, he's a great coach," Hall said. "He's had a couple years where the critics soured. It's pretty tough when you hear some of that."

Smith received a $1.5 million loyalty bonus at the end of the season, Stricklin said. He had four years left on his contract and is trading one tenuous situation for another.

The Gophers have plummeted from a program that once was annually competitive in the Big Ten to a perennial doormat under Monson, who was handcuffed by severe NCAA sanctions after a massive academic fraud scandal rocked the school.

Clem Haskins presided over that period, which resulted in the Gophers' 1997 Final Four appearance being wiped from the books, and Monson struggled mightily with recruiting and was never able to rehabilitate the team. He finished with a 118-106 record in eight seasons.

Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi knew he needed to hire a big name to revive the dormant program and was considering Detroit Pistons coach and Gopher alum Flip Saunders, among other candidates.

"I'm just relieved, so I don't have to answer the questions anymore," Saunders said before the Pistons played the Rockets. "Tubby's a proven winner. He's a great communicator. For Minnesota, it's going to be great for them."

In Smith, Maturi has found a coach with a proven track record, including 14 consecutive 20-win seasons spanning his tenures at Tulsa, Georgia and Kentucky, where he won five SEC titles, five SEC tournament titles and had a 263-83 record.

Barnhart says he will immediately start an "exhaustive, comprehensive and focused" search for the next coach.

"Kentucky holds a special place in college basketball," Barnhart said. "We have the best facilities and tradition in the sport, but most importantly, UK has a fan base which for decades has committed immense financial and emotional resources into Wildcat basketball. ...

"I'm confident we can find the right person to embrace this tradition and lead Kentucky basketball into the future."

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