That thinking apparently changed even before Smith had his highly anticipated showdown with UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart, who had indicated he wanted to evaluate the program and expected improvement to be made.
Minnesota officials called Thursday. Not much later, Smith had his $1.5 million performance bonus from UK he was to receive for completing this season along with an offer from Minnesota for a reported $1.8 to $2.5 million per year. More importantly to Smith, he will be welcomed with open arms as a potential savior at Minnesota rather than questioned at Kentucky for not being back to the Final Four since winning the national title in 1998.
This probably is the best possible scenario for Smith and Kentucky.
Smith leaves on his own terms
First, Smith leaves on his terms and has a lucrative, but challenging job waiting.
Obviously the pressure at Kentucky was taking a toll on him and his unwillingness to make staff changes and stubbornness about style of play had taken a toll on the Kentucky program.
Second, after three superb seasons when UK went a combined 87-15 and lost in two NCAA regional finals, the Cats slipped. Even with one of the nation's top recruiting classes three years ago, Smith couldn't get UK back to the Final Four and this season the Cats' overall talent ranked no better than middle of the pack in the SEC. At Kentucky, that's unacceptable.
But what lies ahead?
Barnhart certainly has a short list of coaching candidates. Could it be Florida's Billy Donovan? What about Memphis' John Calipari? Would Marquette's Tom Crean or Michigan State's Tom Izzo be the right fit? Or could Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, a Kentucky native, be right?
No matter who Kentucky hires -- and Barnhart knows it needs to be a coach with a fast-breaking style and a more outgoing personality than Smith to appease disgruntled UK fans -- the new coach likely will inherit a team without center Randolph Morris. There seems little doubt that Morris will take his considerable talent to the NBA and leave a major void in the middle for Kentucky next year.
New coach needs to sign Patterson, Lucas
The new coach desperately will need to sign recruits Patrick Patterson and Jai Lucas next month. Both have Kentucky on their short list, but both also have insisted for months that Smith is why they were considering Kentucky. Can a new coach still sign them?
"You definitely have a chance. Your chances might be enhanced depending on who is hired. Now that negativity about Tubby and the program will be gone," one major college assistant coach, who asked not to be identified, said Thursday night. "It has to be a home run, though. You can't just get any coach and expect to keep top recruits when coaches at other schools have been recruiting them for a year or more."
Kentucky is not likely to have any players transfer. Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley will be seniors. Why would they leave? Center Jared Carter has already used his redshirt year. Freshmen Jodie Meeks, Derrick Jasper, Perry Stevenson, Michael Porter and Ramon Harris have to know they will be the new coach's building blocks.
Smith gave Kentucky a solid 10 years. He averaged 26 wins per year, never failed to win 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament each year. Off the court, he did considerable charity work.
However, Smith didn't always seem to grasp how big the Kentucky program was. He didn't like the spotlight -- even though he never complained about the big salary that went along with it. He didn't enjoy interviews and being questioned. He believed in a grind-it-out style that not only frustrated UK fans, but also turned off several recruits.
Will Kentucky be better without Smith? Will Smith be happier at Minnesota?
Yes and yes.
The time was right for Smith to move on and for Kentucky to start a new direction. If not this year, it was going to happen next season. Now Smith has found a place to hopefully re-energize him and Kentucky has a chance to find a coach who will appreciate the positive aspects of the UK program rather than worry so much about the intense fan scrutiny as Smith did.