2007 Coaching Carousel Starts Spinning

by Matthew Stevens | March 24th, 2007

Smith out at KentuckyAt the end of the day Rick Pitino was right, sort of.

In an interview with ESPN’s Mike and Mike during Championship Week, the Louisville head coach gave his opinion on Kentucky’s coaching situation.

“If Kentucky fires Tubby Smith, their program will regress for the next 15 years,” Pitino said.

Dick Vitale concurs: “There’s a lot of great fans of Kentucky but there are those whose expectations are wacky,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said in a telephone interview two weeks later.

From putting a “For Sale” sign in Smith’s front yard, to a booster taking out a help wanted ad in the local newspaper, to a FireTubbySmith.com website (that now features a “ Mission Accomplished” banner, t-shirts and bumper stickers), Smith had endured enough. A man of obvious class and intelligence can only take so much.

Vitale presented the facts as well as anyone.

“He won 27 games a year, won a national title, won five Southeastern Conference championships, five SEC Tournament titles and is a highly thought of man, teacher and member of the coaching community,” Vitale said. “He should’ve been treated better—no doubt about it.”

Since the Kentucky faithful have proven they’d rather have a winner that’s one of their own, don’t be surprised if Massachusetts head coach Travis Ford or South Alabama head coach John Pelphrey are at least given an interview if not given the job. Both are former popular players for former head coach Rick Pitino. Florida’s Billy Donovan, another Pitino disciple, is the likely first choice, but may be a longshot to return to Lexington.

The Wildcats’ loss is the Gophers’ gain.

“The people at Minnesota hit a big home run,” Vitale said.

The Gophers finished their 2006-07 season with a 9-22 record but had no seniors on the roster. Next year, they bring in two three-star in-state guards who have already said publicly they are excited to play for such a big-time coach.

The the Gophers’ trio of double-digit scorers (Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson) will all return as seniors.

Smith has only coached winning seasons and never missed the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky. It’ll be a surprise if the Gophers do either in his first year in Minneapolis, but Minnesota fans will surely see their team reach its seventh-ever NCAA Tournament shortly.

Alford’s Preemptive Strike

In 1999, Steve Alford was hot. And not in the dreamy boy band kind of way. He was the young, can’t-miss coaching candidate that Iowa considered itself lucky to have.

In 2007, the University of Iowa was privileged to have the opportunity NOT to fire him.

Alford was announced Friday as the head coach at New Mexico, where he will have an athletic director in his corner, a renovated arena ($12 million are being poured into the famous Pit), and a basketball-first mentality.

“He said they gave him an offer that was too good to refuse,’’ Iowa center Seth Gorney told the Quad City Times. “He said it was a move he had to make.’’

Alford has agreed to an offer which pays him slightly more than the $925,000 in annual compensation he was guaranteed at Iowa.

The major unknown is whether Alford can recruit consistently enough in the Mountain time zone. After all, lack of recruiting was a major factor in his unpopularity at Iowa. The Lobos expect the level of success they attained in qualifying for seven NCAA Tournaments in the 1990s.

Thus, there are still two Big Ten job openings, with the Hawkeyes and Wolverines both looking for head coaches. Creighton coach Dana Altman may make the most sense for Iowa. Four players playing on the Bluejays roster this season were Iowa natives including the 2007 Missouri Valley Tournament most valuable player Nate Funk. Expect Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery and Butler’s Todd Lickliter to get strong looks as well.

Big Names in (or out of?) the Big Ten

On the surface, Michigan is a dream job—proximity to Detroit for easy recruiting, a BCS conference affiliation, and a large contract extension guaranteed to the man who can bring the school back to the NCAA Tournament.

But, the lack of a practice facility makes things very difficult for prospective employees. “If a coach makes a major issue out of not having a practice facility yet, then they’re probably not the right coach for Michigan,” Michigan AD Bill Martin told the Associated Press.

So without the required facilities needed to attract a big-name coach, the program may elect to wait for Kentucky’s search process to play out. Rumors are swirling around Lexington that Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is the top name on UK’s list of possible replacements for Tubby Smith.

If Izzo, whose Spartans currently dominate the state of Michigan, leaves, then the Michigan job immediately becomes more attractive.

Xavier gave Sean Miller a big extension to avoid a repeat of Thad Matta’s situation two years ago. The Wolverines are rumored to be taking a hard look at Oregon head coach Ernie Kent, especially after his public comments to the Oregonian this week.

“I want to be at Oregon as long as they want me there,” Kent said. “But if they don’t want me there anymore, and Michigan wants to talk, Oregon owes me the opportunity to listen.”

Presumably the biggest gold star on Kent’s resume is his ability to land quality Detroit recruits—both Malik Hairston and Tajuan Porter hail from the Motor City’s Renaissance High.

–Matthew Stevens

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