This is the third installment in a series of my life as a Kentucky Wildcats fan. The first part of my coaching memories can be viewed here.
The spring of 1997 was an exciting time for Wildcat fans. Kentucky Basketball was officially “back” as evidenced by two straight appearances in the Championship game. Falling just short in overtime to Arizona in the ’97 Final was a heartbreaker for fans, but the silver lining to that dark cloud was Coach Rick Pitino assuring the Big Blue Nation he had no intention of leaving Kentucky, despite annual rumors that he would return to the NBA. Hopes were high this great run would continue with a third consecutive trip to the Final Four.
Then, without warning, these hopes were dashed when Pitino announced he was leaving Kentucky and headed to Boston to coach the Celtics. For fans old enough to remember when Rupp retired, the emotions with Pitino’s announcement were somewhat similar. Pitino had bascially rebuilt Kentucky Basketball after the near death-penalty period from the Sutton years. Once again, the university was faced with the unenviable task of finding someone to replace a legend. And the man who got the call was one Orlando “Tubby” Smith.
Smith was no stranger to the Kentucky program, having spent 1989-1991 as an assistant on Pitino’s staff. While inheriting a solid team that included 7 returning players from the 1997 team, it was certainly not quite the super-stacked 1996 Championship team. But Tubby coached this team to another regular season SEC title as well as the SEC Tournament Championship. With high hopes, the Big Blue Nation was ready for the 1998 NCAA Tournament. Those hopes were somewhat tempered, however once the brackets were published and a potential showdown with the Duke Blue Devils loomed. Still stinging from the loss in the ’92 Regional Final, the BBN was both wanting revenge and wanting to avoid another potential heartbreaking loss.
As it turned out, revenge is exactly what Kentucky fans got. After falling behind by 18 points in the 2nd half, the Cats suddenly had a light bulb come on and slowly, but steadily chipped away at Duke’s lead. With some timely 3-point baskets by Scott Padgett and Cameron Mills, UK was able to take the lead at last and win the game, securing the program’s 3rd consecutive Final Four appearance. This game was also the beginning of the three game stretch of double-digit deficits being overcome, earning the team the nickname of The Comeback Cats. The third game in that sequence was versus Utah and ended with Tubby bringing home the 7th National Championship trophy.
That Tubby won a title in his first season at Kentucky was both a blessing and a curse. It did silence the doubters for a while. Many had questioned if he was truly the best fit for Kentucky, but a new banner hanging in the rafters gave him the benefit of the doubt. But it also raised the already unrealistic fan expectations to even greater levels. Anything less than a Final Four would be deemed a failure now. In all my years as a Cat fan and having lived through all the previous coaching eras, I had never seen a fan base so divided as they became during Coach Smith’s years at UK.
I always thought Tubby to be an exceptionally talented defensive coach and one of the best at making in-game adjustments. Many others viewed his style of play as boring. Tubby brought in solid, though not many elite players. His lack of success in recruiting the marquee players was another knock on him by the fans. The consensus by fans was we would be steady, but not elite without getting those players. Five SEC regular season titles, 5 SEC Tourney titles, 6 Sweet 16s (with 4 being Elite 8’s) were not enough to keep the BBN happy. So in 2007, Tubby announced his resignation and moved to Minnesota to take over the head coaching duties there.
Those critical of Smith were elated. They were finally getting their wish of getting a new head coach. Many of them said it didn’t matter who it was because it had to be an improvement. Those who shared that belief, however, were soon proven wrong in that line of thinking. Change for the sake of change is not always a good thing and the change Kentucky got was far from being an improvement. While I faithfully followed my Wildcats during the next two seasons, I refuse to acknowledge anything else about those years other than the players. The coach during this dark period shall forever be known as He Who Shall Not Be Named in my book. So I waited for a new dawn for my beloved Wildcats.
Dawn arrived on April 1, 2009 when Mitch Barnhart announced the hiring of John Calipari as the new head coach at UK. The BBN rejoiced and the fan base began healing the wounds of the previous few years. Cal arrived with a reputation for getting the very best high school players, the “one and dones”, and molding them into a very high energy and entertaining team as was seen with his time at Memphis. With the Kentucky name, resources and tradition, the BBN knew the sky would be the limit with Coach Cal at the helm.
Now here we are, five years into Cal’s career at Kentucky and it is safe to say the Cats are again at the top of the college ranks. Four Elite 8’s, 3 Final Fours, 1 Runner-up and 1 National Championship banner is a ridiculously rich list of accomplishments for any program over time. To have accumulated all of that in 5 years would seem impossible. But that’s exactly what Cal has done, and each year having to replace the vast majority of his roster as players departed for the NBA.
Cal’s incredible success shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, either. After having landed yet another stellar recruiting class for the 2014-15 season, the college basketball world wasn’t ready for what happened next. The Cats’ Runner-up team that was filled with potentially 8 draft-worthy players was expected to be depleted with most opting to head to the NBA. However, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Andrew and Aaron Harrison all chose to return. Kentucky, the “one and done factory” suddenly silenced that criticism.
Now we await the upcoming season, with a roster containing 9 — yes, nine McDonald All-Americans plus Willie Cauley-Stein. Coach Cal just signed a new contract securing him as the coach for the next 7 years. After enduring many years of peaks and a few years of valleys, this Cat fan is riding high on one of the highest peaks we’ve been on in many years. Our future is so bright, I can hardly contain myself.
Two things I know to be true from my years as a fan: first, no matter who our coach is and no matter how many valleys we may travel, Kentucky Basketball will always be the greatest tradition in college basketball. Second, there will never be a greater fan base in all of sports than the Big Blue Nation. Period.