Big Blue Blunder: Kentucky On the Clock

March 28th, 2009

I don’t think this is how Mitch Barnhart envisioned things going.


When the Kentucky AD hired Billy Gillispie two years ago to revive a basketball program that had seemingly grown stale under Tubby Smith, he thought he was getting a self-described “basketball junkie”, a guy whose passion and dedication would return the Cats to their rightful place among the nation’s elite.


Instead, a 40-27 record and an NIT appearance later, Gillispie is now packing his bags and Barnhart is once again seeking candidates for a position that was once considered the best in basketball. It’s a far cry from the madness that greeted Gillispie’s arrival in Lexington two Aprils ago, a scene that included a pep rally at the Craft Center and an abundance of optimism in Big Blue country.


“This is not a place I thought we would be at this point,” admitted Barnhart on Friday. “Unfortunately there are times when a situation and the people involved do not create the right chemistry or right fit.”


And therein lies the problem. While Gillispie’s on-court results have been less than stellar so far, it’s his attitude and demeanor that seem to be the driving force behind his dismissal. Turns out, the basketball junkie was unprepared to fill the public relations aspect that is required of Kentucky coaches. His surly attitude and over-the-top arrogance rubbed many people the wrong way in his short stay in Lexington, including the media, administration and fans.


In a state that lives and breathes UK basketball, Gillispie failed to connect with the majority of fans, and never seemed to fully embrace his role as an ambassador of the program. Rumors abounded of his personal life, everything from late-night drinking episodes to carousing with young coeds all over town. Combine that with the disappointing performance of the Cats on the court and Gillispie’s condescending attitude during interviews with the media, and all of a sudden, this looked like a marriage from hell.


With legendary names like Rupp and Pitino having stalked their sidelines, UK fans expect many things from their coaches. First and foremost on that list is wins, which Gillispie didn’t do nearly enough of. Losses to Gardner-Webb, San Diego and VMI won’t fly in Lexington, especially when arch-rival Louisville is in the midst of back-to back deep tournament runs, and fellow basketball blueblood North Carolina is quickly closing in on the Cats’ all-time wins record.


But additionally, they want someone who understands the passion and significance of basketball in the bluegrass, which Gillispie has consistently brushed aside. Former players have said they felt unwelcome around the program with Gillispie, and he didn’t help matters a few weeks ago when he proclaimed that UK was just a “basketball job”, no different than anywhere else. The intent of his words may have gotten lost in translation, but what many UK fans heard is that he wasn’t valuing the position like he should. With the general frustration level rising, Gillispie’s fate was sealed when the Cats were beaten soundly by Notre Dame in the NIT quarterfinals, the first time since 1991 they haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament.


The question now is where UK goes from here. Florida’s Billy Donovan quickly issued a statement declaring his intentions to remain in Gainesville, quieting the growing rumors in Lexington. Memphis’ John Calipari and Oklahoma State’s Travis Ford are both being mentioned for the job, as is Villanova’s Jay Wright, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Gonzaga’s Mark Few and even Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. One rumor making the rounds even has Rick Pitino trading in his Louisville red to return to UK. (For those of you not in Kentucky who are laughing that one, you clearly don’t know how ridiculous the rumor mill can be around Lexington. I also heard from at least five people within an hour of Gillispie’s firing who knows someone who “swore” they saw Donovan and/or Calipari arriving at the Lexington airport on Friday, presumably to accept the job.)


The problem, aside from the fact that many of these candidates have already publicly or privately turned down the job at least once, is that Lexington isn’t seen as the most hospitable place for a coach right now. Whoever takes the reins next fall will be the third head coach since 2006…a fact that doesn’t exactly entice potential candidates. With the perception out there that UK fans and their unrealistic expectations played a major role in both the resignation of Tubby Smith and the firing of Gillispie, coaches may want to think twice before signing on the dotted line.


No team can win a championship every year. More television exposure for more schools has leveled the playing field in recruiting, allowing smaller schools like Gonzaga and Xavier to compete at the same level as traditional powers. The NBA Draft typically saps some power from the North Carolinas and Dukes of the world, making them ripe for the occasional upset to schools that, 25 years ago, wouldn’t have stood a chance. The days of one program owning the college basketball world are a thing of the past, no matter how badly UK fans want to fight it.


Expectations aside, the state of the current program is more than a little uneasy for whomever the Cats end up signing. Stud forward Patrick Patterson and All-American guard Jodie Meeks are candidates to declare for the NBA Draft, although neither has made any decisions yet. Heralded freshman DeAndre Liggins, who found himself in and out of Gillispie’s doghouse much of the year, is said to be considering a transfer. Incoming big man Daniel Orton, one of the country’s top recruits, said before Gillispie’s firing that he would likely reopen his recruiting if Gillispie was shown the door. Even the most optimistic of UK fans has to admit that next season has the potential to be a very rough one, no matter who takes over.


So now Barnhart is on the clock. The hiring, and subsequent firing of Gillispie, all in a two-year span, has to be considered a failure. UK fans are growing impatient, and Barnhart needs to hit a homerun with this next hire. He not only needs someone who is capable of winning games, but someone who will embrace the position. Gillispie’s antics and attitude did not endear him to many around the Bluegrass, and the next coach will have some fences to mend.


UK’s team slogan this year was “A Pattern of Excellence”, referencing their storied tradition and seven national titles. If they make the right hire this time, that pattern could continue. Another mistake by Barnhart, and he may be joining Gillispie on the job trail.


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