On Gillispie

Well, I never thought I’d have a day more surreal than the one two years ago when I was covering The Masters, and my editor called up and said, “We think Kentucky is going after Tom Izzo and he may have tried to get away to think about it, and he’s gone to The Masters to get away. We need you to look for him.”

Sure. Middle-aged white guy at Augusta National during the second round of The Masters. He should stick out like a sore thumb.

But today was, if possible, even a little stranger. I wrote a column about Billy Gillispie being fired at UK from the parking lot of Lucas Oil Stadium. I didn’t even want to come into the building to get into NCAA Tournament mode before that one was done.

It’s a tough deal. My job was to write about Gillispie. Rick Bozich wrote a column about Mitch Barnhart.

Part of my column is about my basic disagreement with the UK powers that be that this wasn’t about wins and losses. If Gillispie were winning, he’d still be the coach. I don’t care how hard he was to get along with in the corridors of the Craft Center. That’s the gist of my column.

However, I do agree with Mitch Barnhart and Lee Todd that the UK coaching job is more than just a coaching job. You’re a figurehead, a spokesman. Of course, I was saying this last year BEFORE they hired Gillispie. He never was this kind of coach.

In the end, Gillispie remained his own man. He just wasn’t the kind of man UK wanted. We can debate about why. I contend that if he had come in and won, his gruff, West Texas ways would have been embraced, or at least accepted. But when he started losing more, they soured fast.

Anyway, it’s time to shift to basketball on the court. I’m getting ready to cover U of L-Arizona. Should be a good one. I will leave you with this. It’s a column I wrote the day Tubby Smith resigned two years ago. It’s interesting in light of what Barnhart and Todd had to say today.

After departure, the ball is now in Barnhart’s court

By Eric Crawford
March 23, 2007


Rick Pitino termed the University of Kentucky the “Roman Empire” of college basketball. In that sense, UK men’s basketball coaches are not named, they are crowned.

Don’t believe it? Spend some time here. I’ll lay odds right now — whomever the new UK coach is, come Kentucky Derby time he’ll have a longer line of Churchill Downs gawkers than the Queen of England.

The state has had 18 governors since 1931 — but only five UK basketball coaches.

Governors come and go. The UK basketball coach is forever.

Well, symbolically. Yesterday Tubby Smith became the first coach of the modern era to leave UK for another school when he became coach at Minnesota.

A good man and a good coach, Smith took the high road out of Lexington after straining under the magnitude of the job.

Now the magnitude passes to athletic director Mitch Barnhart. Now we’ll find out: Does Barnhart get what this thing is all about?

The UK basketball coach is more than a coach. Like it or not — misplaced priorities or not — he’s an icon the instant he walks on campus.

“The pressure is on them,” former UK coach Joe B. Hall said last night at the Sweet 16 in Rupp Arena. “How are they going to find someone better than Tubby?”

Barnhart’s charge

Let’s say this for Barnhart: He has maneuvered the past month with backbone. While national pundits railed that you shouldn’t openly question a coach with 10 straight NCAA Tournament trips, three Elite Eights, five Southeastern Conference titles and a national title, Barnhart asked fans to hold their evaluation until the end of the season, sending a clear message that an evaluation was coming.

He put out a clumsier message in a later Associated Press interview but apparently stuck to his guns. When he and Smith met Wednesday night, Smith didn’t say a word about Minnesota, according to school officials. By yesterday morning, Minnesota was on the phone and Smith was all but gone. We don’t know what was said at that meeting, but we can do the math.

It would seem the best possible outcome for UK and Smith, who faced the prospect of working amid a bitterly divided fan base.

But now Barnhart has the monumental job in putting it back together.

And as subtly impressive as his maneuvering has been the past month, he created some questions with his public absence yesterday. When a UK basketball coach quits, it would seem incumbent on the athletic director to appear personally to speak to the media and fans, to acknowledge how much this means to them by your presence — not just a release on a piece of university stationery. If you’re going to ask a coach to embrace the magnitude, it would seem wise for the head man to embrace it, too.

The search

Now is no time to retreat into the Big Blue Bunker. Barnhart’s job has never been bigger.

He said he’ll use no search committee, relying on advice from experts and “people who understand and are committed to the success of Kentucky basketball.”

The first phone call, from all indications, will be to Florida coach Billy Donovan. Of all possible candidates he’s the one who fits every requirement, from coaching ability to relentless recruiting to style of play to passion and public temperament.

But what happens if Donovan says no? All of a sudden the field bunches up. Billy Gillispie and Tom Crean? Fantastic coaches, but no bigger public personas than Smith. John Calipari? Big name, but bigger baggage. Rick Barnes? Good coach, but just fell short of the Sweet 16 with the best player in college basketball.

You see where I’m going. Remember the UK football coaching search? One wrong move, and you could see it again.

Barnhart now has a Wildcat by the tail. Let’s see what he does with it.


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