3 worst head coach hires in Kentucky basketball history

It's hard to have a bad tenure at Kentucky, a true blue blood of college basketball, but these three coaches managed to underachieve in Lexington.

Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks listens to coach Billy Gillispie during a 2008 game.
Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks listens to coach Billy Gillispie during a 2008 game. / Bill Luster/The Courier Journal
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It’s basically impossible not to win at the University of Kentucky. Adolph Rupp set the standard with 876 wins and four national championships in his tenure that stretched from 1930-1972. Since Rupp retired, there have been six head coaches to patrol the sidelines in Lexington, from Joe B. Hall to John Calipari. 

All six of those head coaches have posted winning records in their tenures and four of them added to Kentucky’s trophy case with another national title. Hall won his in 1978, Rick Pitino added another in 1996, followed by Tubby Smith’s 1998 title, and eventually in 2012, John Calipari ended the 13-year drought. 

Now, it’s been over a decade since Calipari got his first as Kentucky heads into the SEC Tournament with big problems on the defensive end of the floor. Will Calipari ever add another ring? Because as we’ll discuss with Tubby Smith, one title at Kentucky isn’t always enough. 

Tubby Smith. 1997-2007. Record: 263-83. Tubby Smith. 3. . Tubby Smith. player. 528.

Tubby Smith took over Kentucky at the height of the program’s power. Pitino had just taken the Wildcats to the Final Four for the second straight season after his title in ‘96, so he was ready to conquer the NBA. Pitino took the Celtics job and Smith, who was previously one of Pitino’s top assistants before head coaching stints at Tulsa and Georgia, came back to Lexington as the head man. 

Smith inherited a Pitino’s roster that featured Jeff Sheppard, Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett, and Wayne Turner, who were all upper-classmen. That experienced group went from a 35-5 record the year before to 35-4, winning the NCAA Tournament National Final instead of coming up short in that game as Pitino had the year prior. 

Over his 10-year tenure at Kentucky, Smith never missed the tournament and never won fewer than 20 games, but the program was slipping. By the 2007 NCAA Tournament, Smith was on the hot seat and was a No. 8 seed for the second straight year. The Cats responded by getting bounced in the Round of 32 and Smith resigned to take the head coaching job at Minnesota. 

Smith is a national championship-winning head coach and was inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013, but too many 10-loss seasons and early tournament exits landed him on this list.