Today's UK hoops drama

Despite statements from UK president Lee Todd and an excellent “All-Access” piece by Dana O’Neil at ESPN.com, I didn’t write about UK basketball for tomorrow’s paper. A discussion of why at the end of this. But first, a look at today’s developments.

After a UK board of trustees’ meeting this afternoon, Todd was asked by a reporter from The Lexington Herald-Leader about Billy Gillispie’s future. Here’s what Todd had to say (read the entire story here).

“We are not going to do any kind of evaluation of the basketball program until the season is over. I’ll leave that up to (athletics director) Mitch (Barnhart) to do the evaluation, sitting down with the coach, and then they’ll come to me and we’ll talk about anything they want to talk about.

“I think every Kentucky fan is concerned, including the coach, including the athletic director. We didn’t do nearly as well in the last half of the season as we did in the first half. That’s pretty obvious.”

So, what, really, is being said here? On the surface, nothing much. He says Barnhart and Gillispie will sit down after the season and have a discussion. (He also added that this happens with every team after every season). He says the team hasn’t played well in the second half of the season and nobody’s happy. Not exactly stop-the-presses material.

Interestingly, Todd’s quotes here do not say what the lead and headline of this story say they do; that is, that there will be no discussion of Gillispie’s future until after the season. These two quotes, in fact, are a discussion of Gillispie’s future, vauge though they are, at least with the media.

They do, however, have some significant meaning. But first, let’s move on to the ESPN.com piece.

In it, Mitch Barnhart says this:

“Here (at UK) every word is isolated to the syllable, every gesture is interpreted and it gets to be a burden, but Billy is paid very well to be the coach at Kentucky and with that comes a responsibility. The coach at Kentucky is more well-known than the governor, and you have to recognize that.”

Asked how he thought his coach was handling the pressure, Barnhart responds, “It’s been difficult. We’re not all perfect born into this. We have to be willing to make adjustments. We ask our players to make adjustments and we need to be willing to do the same thing. Self-examination and self-awareness are very important. After two years, we need to sit down and talk about what we need to do to get this program back to where we want it to be.”

“When I was at Oregon State, no one came into the coffee shop to ask me what was wrong with my teams. It’s not that they didn’t care, it was just different. This is intense. This is the lifeblood of the state. This is something that has bonded this state for more than 100 years and they’re hurting right now. And I feel their pain.”

“People tell me I’m not from here so I don’t understand, and that really bothers me. No one takes on a job that includes Kentucky basketball intending to lose. Part of what attracted me to this job, I was looking forward to the Final Four. That was one thing I hadn’t enjoyed in my career and I’m still waiting. Trust me, there have been many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get to that spot.’

All right. Let’s get to the significance of these statements, which to this point, say nothing more on the surface than that UK leadership intends to speak to Gillispie after the season.

What does this mean? You have to ask yourself why Barnhart and Todd would allow themselves to enter into this kind of discussion before the season is over. (Both, by the way, have said prior to today that they would not do that. Barnhart told me that he’d sit down for the record after the season is over, and UK had said prior to today that Todd would have no comments on the situation.)

Well, let’s think about what it could mean.

  1. It could be an acknowledgement to fans that they know there’s a problem and that they’re going to be on the case to fix it.
  2. It could be a message to Gillispie that his public stance needs to be altered.
  3. It could be a calculated move to provoke Gillispie into some kind of response. Or action after the season.
  4. It could be a trial balloon, gauging the public and national media response.

We should remember that two years ago, when Barnhart was talking about a meeting after the season and word began to spread that he would be demanding changes on Tubby Smith’s staff, Smith had none of it. In the aftermath of his departure, we learned that an agent had begun to shop his name elsewhere.

You have to wonder how Gillispie will respond. My guess is, he can’t be happy about it. For starters, when he appears at the SEC Tournament media day tomorrow afternoon, his future at UK will be squarely on the table. And more than just the odd question fueled by message board or talk radio speculation, this new line of questioning will be fueled by statements from the university president and athletic director. In addition to coaching the team, Gillispie now is going to have to contend with these questions. I don’t care what you say, it’s a lot easier for a coach to blow off a question about his future when it’s just media speculation. When your AD wants to sit down at the end of the year, that’s another story. We saw it two years ago when Tubby Smith was subjected to the same situation.

The other thread emerging here that’s worth noting, and it isn’t big news either, but is getting a more formal acknowledgment in these statements, is that the problems are not just limited to the losing record, but spread toward the image of the program that Gillispie is giving the public.

She doesn’t report this in her story, but O’Neil came to UK at its invitation upon the promise of “All-Access” to UK’s locker room and practices, team plane and meals. She spent four days with the team. Gillispie spent only 8 1/2 minutes talking with her. She was kicked out of the locker room several times. I’m told that there was a sharp exchange when Gillispie got wind of some of the questions she had posed to Patrick Patterson’s mother.

Now, I don’t know that this is a matter of much concern to fans. To be frank, most of them would just as soon Gillispie be spending time on his team as with an ESPN.com reporter. I doubt this matters much to most people. But as Barnhart went out of his way to point out, Gillispie has a responsibility to deal with the media, to put forward a positive public face for the UK program. It’s easy to conclude that he’s bothered at some of the things he’s seeing on the TV screens and behind the scenes as much as he is by what’s happened on the court.

(For a longer discussion of the public role of the UK coach, see this blog entry of mine from last week).

Finally, we come to something that UK fans will care about. Some statements Gillispie made to ESPN.com, and one scene in particular that O’Neil reported on. (And allow me to take a moment and acknowledge what a fine piece not just of reporting this was, but of writing. O’Neil not only made the m
ost of what access she did get, but her keen perceptions about what she was seeing, hearing and feeling made the piece stand out. Under less-than-favorable circumstances, she produced an outstanding piece of work.)

After the crushing Senior Day loss to Georgia, O’Neil said she sat with the team for eight silent minutes while Gillispie and his coaches huddled in the next room. When Gillispie came in, she was asked to leave. But afterward, she asked a UK official what was said in the room and she was told Gillispie had said nothing, just told the team what time the next day’s practice was.

If true, this is the most vivid picture we’ve yet seen of the dysfunctional nature of this team and its coach-player relations. And then there are the words Gillispie did say to O’Neil, on the record. Earlier this week on his coaches call-in show, Gillispie said he knows what the problem with this team is, but he’s going to keep it to himself. It was an almost Kragthorpian response — though less tactful. (The U of L football coach referenced off-the-field problems that were hurting his team, then refused to divulge what they were.)

Here’s what Gillispie told O’Neil:

“A lot of folks, a lot of people who aren’t in the arena, have all the answers. I’m the same with some things. I’m a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan and when the Cowboys lose or do something, I have all the answers.

“What I don’t have is any information. It’s the same here. People have all of the answers and none of the information. They want to overanalyze everything and not get anything done. To me the only thing you can do is get back to work, so that’s what I do.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen with Billy Gillispie. I do know that these are the kinds of statements that Barnhart doesn’t seem in much mood to hear anymore from his basketball coach. Criticizing fans is a losing argument — even if it is, technically, a correct argument. We’re all short on information. Still, there are only so many reasons a kid won’t run down the floor hard enough to defend a fast break. Some of the things going wrong for UK aren’t rocket science. You don’t have to be Hank Iba to see them. It should be noted that folks around here do know what good basketball looks like. They’ve watched more of it than anybody.

And while it’s true that none of us knows just exactly what has run off the tracks, even before the SEC Tournament is started, we’re beginning with stories like these to get a glimpse of how far the thing may have derailed.

POSTSCRIPT:

For those still reading or who care, I did say earlier I’d talk about my decision not to write about this for tomorrow’s column. Instead, I did a feature on Bellarmine University as it heads into NCAA Division II Tournament action this weekend. First, I wrote Bellarmine becuase the story is important to me. I think they’re a group of engaging and talented young men with a coach who has given his life to basketball in this city, and that has accomplished something special already. I’m heading to the SEC Tournament for the rest of the week, and won’t have another chance to write about them before they play their regional, so it was now or never for that.

But beyond that, I think we’re still in the finding-out mode on this UK-Gillispie deal. We’re going to know a lot more in a few days, and I don’t know that it’s worth muddying the water with more pronouncements before that time. A couple of people I respect, when I first took this job, said that the best thing I can do is to figure out what people will be talking about around the water coolers (or these days, I guess, message boards) and write about those things. In general, it is good advice. But not all of that discussion is productive. And not every topic that isn’t a big “buzz” item is worthless. I figured I’m going to be writing about UK for the rest of the week. So I’m probably best off to watch things evolve until the next column comes around, and maybe have a better picture of what’s going on.

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31 thoughts on “Today's UK hoops drama

  1. I agree, not sure if you can tell by the lack of comments. But I, for one, really appreciate these blog post. Hope you continue.

  2. Eric, let’s say you cover the Board of Trustees at UK. Not sports, just things in and around UK which includes the BOT meeting. So after the meeting, you come up to Dr. Todd and say, “Hey, what about Billy Gillespie?” My guess is, given the venue, he gave a non-answer that one would expect. Rick Pitino will sit down with Tom Jurich after the seasno is over as will most every coahc with his AD. I think we are reading way too much into what I am guessing was not a really thoughtful answer.

  3. Well, that’s one reason I didn’t do my column on it today. We really don’t know what it means. But I differ with your assessment of Todd’s answer.Todd should have carefully considered what answer he would give to that question. And frankly, I believe he did. You’re right that it was, pretty much, a non-answer. But it wasn’t as much a non-answer as he could have given. He could have said, “I’m not going to get into it.” He could have said lots of things.If this was not a thoughtful answer, then shame on Todd as the president of the University of Kentucky for not having put thought into it. But my guess is, knowing how all this goes, that he did put some thought into it, and said exactly what he meant to say.

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