I know what UK was hoping with Billy Gillispie. That he would grow into the job. The problem is you can’t picture a guy in his present circumstance and evaluate how he’d do at UK. You have to picture him in Lexington. You have to ask whether he can leverage the program’s vast resources and following to turn it into the kind of beast it was when Rick Pitino left.
Pitino laid the big blueprint for building the modern UK program. He inspired the masses. He drew national attention. He reestablished the brand. He did a lot of crazy things that UK fans, left to their own devices, wouldn’t have had done with their program. He messed with the uniforms. He played mind games. But he won. And UK was the unquestioned pinnacle of college basketball at his departure.
But it wasn’t just off-the-court style that accomplished this. It was on-the-court substance. In reacting to the public relations nightmare of Gillispie, UK cannot overcompensate in the other direction. It would be just as big a mistake to pick a coach because of public demeanor instead of overall basketball approach. Because Pitino not only got the program going with his personality, but with the Wildcats’ style of play. It was the combination of those two things.
And the question, and it is a serious one, is who is out there now who can make both areas work, who has a personality that can handle being King of the Bluegrass, while putting a team on the floor that taps into the kind of passion that made UK a destination for some of the nation’s best players?
And the answer is that there doesn’t seem to be a perfect candidate.
And the problem is that many who would seem to fit that description — Billy Donovan, John Calipari, Jay Wright — have said they’re not interested in the job.
Though Donovan seems to fit all the criteria better than anyone in the nation, I’ll omit him from this list per his own comments.
But let’s look at the likeliest names who might want to be in Lexington:
— TOM IZZO, Michigan State. Here’s a guy, no question, who would instantly re-elevate the national stature of the UK coaching job. He’s a fantastic recruiter and coach, and a great person. (Did you check the late time out against Kansas in the regional semifinals Friday night? Tie game, Michigan State comes out of a huddle, throws a couple of ball reversals then gets a drive and dunk for the score that turned the tide). Izzo may well have a level of interest in the job. I hear that he might be interested in a new challenge. But he’s not a guy that UK is going to put on a short list and get. UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart will either commit, and go hire him, or he will not. There’s no interview process with a guy of this magnitude. You either go get him, or you don’t.
Down side? Izzo’s style of play is not what most Kentucky fans will go for. They didn’t like it under Tubby Smith, and there’s no reason to think they’d like it under Izzo. They like winning, but they would not love the style the way they did with Pitino.
— THAD MATTA, Ohio State. He’s an interesting thought. He can flat-out coach. He’s versatile, which is one of the things I admire most in a coach. He’s not wedded to any one style. If he has a long, athletic team, he can mold them into an up-tempo bunch. If he has great size, he takes advantage of it. The longer I cover college basketball, the more impressed I am with guys who adapt their style to their talent. Matta is a very personable guy, and to me, is in a lot of ways a throw-back. He has a great respect for the game. And he looks like Norman Dale. He’s just a few years removed from landing Mike Conley and Greg Odon, so he knows a little bit about recruiting, and always seems to be in on the nation’s top kids. I’m told he would have some interest.
Downside? He has absolutely no connection to UK basketball, and that’s all right, but it would take some get-to-know-you time down here. To be honest, he may be a perfect fit, but it’s hard to know that right now, because folks down here know so little of him. That’s not a knock on him, because Pitino sure didn’t seem like a Kentuckian either when he came to Lexington. Matta, if interested, certainly bears serious consideration.
— TRAVIS FORD, Oklahoma State. I’d say Travis, at the moment, is the fall-back candidate. If the school decides against a big name, he’s the guy I believe they will go after. I wasn’t sure what to make of Travis, but I got to watch him very close during the regional in Dayton. I have to say, I was extremely impressed. His handling of the media duties was outstanding. I like his sideline demeanor, his interaction with players, as well as any coach I’ve seen in this tournament, except for maybe Izzo. But Ford’s style of play is more in keeping with what UK fans hope to see. Of course, Ford is a Kentuckian. He knows what the place is about, knows what the job is about, knows what the fans are about. For those who dismiss his lack of experience, I’d say that he’s won in the Big 12, and won at UMass, even won at Eastern Kentucky. He’s not the firey kid who played for Kentucky. He has matured into a first-rate coach. If he winds up being the guy at UK, I’d think the school could have done a lot worse, and I think he’ll win from the start. He could easily write himself into that line of beloved coaches at UK.
Downside? That kind of success is no sure thing, and after taking a chance on Gillispie, Wildcat Nation is really not into taking chances right now. In Ford, they’d have a good coach, but they’d have to be patient. With the talent lined up to return, Ford could win quickly at UK. But in the event that he didn’t, fans would need to stay behind him, suck it up and endure the building process. There would be no two-year course correction if he didn’t set the world on fire right away. Ford would need to be given some latitude here. I don’t know if people are in the mood to do that.
If you put a gun to my head today and ordered me to choose, I’d say that UK’s next coach will come out of that pool of three men. And contrary to the gloomy picture I’m hearing from some fans, I think the program would be in excellent hands with any one of them.
But would it be the home run hire? Would it be the kind of situation that would catch fire and become a phenomenon in the Commonwealth and nationally? I can’t say that it would. So, whose arrival in Lexington would do that? I’m going to throw a few things out there, and please understand that these are my own thoughts. They are not the thoughts of anyone at UK. They’re not based on anything I’m hearing. They are based on my placing what I think are the requirements of the UK job with the available people. There are coaches you mention who draw the response, “he’d be a beast at Kentucky.” These are those guys. In my view, anyway.
— Get Donovan anyway. If he’s the right guy, he’s the right guy, and you make a play for him. When Tom Jurich got Rick Pitino, he held a
press conference and said, “There is a short list of One. It’s Rick Pitino. He’s who we want.” There were no other candidates. Jurich went all out. That’s what you have to do if you really want somebody. In truth, there is no coach who should be immune to seriously considering Kentucky if they really want him. They have the money, they have the prestige, the program, the place in college basketball. Barnhart yesterday talked about finding a coach who “best utilizes our incredible tradition, assets and platform.” Well, it’s also his job to utilize those things. He did not utilize them himself two years ago.
Donovan coaches a style UK fans like. He can recruit. He’s a two-time national champion with some time in the Bluegrass under his belt. He has great passion for the game with a personality to match it. He’s tireless. If he could achieve what he has at Florida, which does not care for basketball, imagine what he could achieve at Kentucky. I don’t care what anybody says, his head was turned by Kentucky two years ago, and it probably could be again. But like with Izzo, the school would have to make a bold run.
— Think about Bruce Pearl. I know, most UK fans probably just threw up a little in their mouths just thinking of this. Bruce is the one guy on this list that I know in more than just a passing way. If he weren’t the coach at Tennessee, he’d be a serious candidate. But the fact that he’s done what he has at Tennessee should make people stop and think for a minute, what might he do at Kentucky. I don’t know if he’s interested. But as I said in the lead to this section. UK needs to make people interested, if they want them. Pearl is not a fit with Barnhart’s style. Barnhart is as straight laced as they come. Two years ago, when Pearl had the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, I sought him out after a game, couldn’t find him in the locker room, and finally found him in the booster club room, already changed into a cabana shirt, telling stories from the game to a group of boosters. Some would say, “You can’t do that at Kentucky.” Maybe, maybe not. Pearl is a man of the people. Wherever he has gone, he has not been a guy to put himself on a pedestal. He gets to know people, stays for an hour after ballgames and signs every autograph that comes his way.
His promotional efforts on the part of Tennessee basketball are well-known. His past efforts in that area are legendary. As a student assistant at Boston College, he donned the Eagle mascot uniform. He has voiced as much respect for the tradition of Kentucky basketball as any opposing coach in the country.
I’ve known and watched Pearl from his first head-coaching job on. Here’s what he does. When he arrives at a school, he creates buzz. At every stop, he’s gotten to a school, and at least one high-profile player from the area who went away to college has come back home. At every stop. He recruits his local area. Already, he has recruited Kentucky as well as UK’s coaches have. He raises money. When I covered Pearl in Division II, he not only was the lead athletic fundraiser, he became the lead fundraiser for the University. He gets national media attention. His coaches shows, radio and television, are events and fun in themselves. And he envigorates the players he inherits. His teams run, and are some of the best fast-breaking teams in the country. He presses, but is versatile in style. Some say he gives players too much freedom on the court. But that also attracts talent. At a place like Kentucky, those qualities, in the not too distant past, have proved lextremely successful. I don’t know if he’s interested, but I suggested Pearl the last time the job came open, and I’m suggesting him again.
I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Those are the two best mixes of style and basketball substance available. But there’s one more class of candidates, and these are “out-of-the-box” type of people. Current or former NBA coaches. Younger but hot coaches like Jeff Caple at Oklahoma, who have caught fire recently. They bring the same uncertainty as Ford but less institutional knowledge. I don’t give any of these candidates any chance.
And then there’s the ultimate out-of-the-box candidate: Rick Pitino. If you’re UK, don’t you have to make at least one serious inquiry? It won’t happen. Too much under the bridge. Too much has been done and said at this point, probably. If Pitino were anywhere but Louisville, he’d probably be back in Lexington right now. But after building three programs to Final Four status, I get the feeling that Pitino has done all the building he wants to do. I think he’ll try to enjoy the fruits of what he’s built a Louisville a few more years before he moves on or out of the profession.
Anyway, that’s one man’s rambling disucssion of what could happen. Just by way of disclosure, I’m linking the blog I posted here the last time the job was open. Click here to see it.