Gillispie's parting gift

Wednesday’s column (you Internet readers will understand when you get to see it) was probably an exercise in selfishness. I wanted to write a little something about what the start of basketball season stirs in me. The hope when you write something like that is that it will stir something in readers that maybe they’ve forgotten. As a columnist, one trap that’s easy to fall into is the news-cycle rut of writing only about the controversy of the moment without ever taking a step back. A column isn’t like a talk radio show. Sometimes, a column calls for stepping back and taking a different kind of look at a subject. It’s not for everyone, though.

Word on the
University of Kentucky‘s settlement with former basketball coach Billy Gillispie came fairly late in the day, after my column was filed. Had it come earlier, it likely would’ve been my subject, and the column would’ve read something like this. . . .

He came, he emptied the fridge, he drank the beer, he cluttered up the house — or at least, the house that Rupp built — and even after he was asked to leave, he stayed, hanging out on the couch until he was damn good and ready.

Then he swerved off into the sunset — but not before grabbing $2,984,536.07 million off the dresser before hitting the road. Look at that figure again. He even grabbed a nickel and two pennies.

Billy Gillispie saved his most deft maneuver for last. Mercurial and mystifying though he was from the sidelines, he operated with crystal clarity when he had to move in court and not on one.

The best fast-break drill he ever ran here was to a Federal courthouse in Texas, where he got the drop on UK’s administration by filing a lawsuit saying he’d take the balance of his “memorandum of understanding” money just as quickly as they could get around to cutting a check.

UK erred in playing defense. It let Gillispie fire the first shot, rather than filing its own motion in Kentucky. It erred in going along with Gillispie’s notion that the memorandum did, in fact, constitute a contract, until legal expediency forced them to do otherwise.

I suppose, if you look at it one way, UK scored a minor victory. It is paying Gillispie less than half of the $6 million the coach claimed to be due — by $15,463.93.

Let the message go forth — you don’t just walk into the Craft Center, lose 27 games in two years, alienate longtime boosters and supporters and in general make a mess of things without having to pay.

But then again, UK is also paying Gillispie’s attorney fees of $265,000. Add it all up — Gillispie worked UK over as well as anybody this side of Steve Spurrier.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Gillispie. In fact, I agreed with his stances late in his final season regarding whether he should promote the program more.

While Gillisipe grew increasingly uncomfortable in the Wildcat fishbowl, he never really changed.
He came to UK as an eccentric coach who was neither polished nor particularly interested in what anyone else thought, and that’s how he coached till the end.

UK acted as if this demeanor was something it did not expect, and could not accept. You can bet, however, that had Gillispie been winning, it would have grown on them.

As it is, UK will pay Gillispie more not to coach this coming season than it ever paid him to coach.

And the Wildcats are looking forward to their biggest season in years.

Gillispie, who is facing a DUI charge in Kentucky, last week announced that he would be seeking treatment for alcohol-related issues. It’s a courageous step and one I hope meets with success.

Terms of the settlement are that he can’t say anything disparaging about UK, and UK
officials can’t say anything disparaging about him.

I know a lot of fans — shoot, a lot of citizens — are going to look at what amounts to a $3 million unemployment check to a failed coach in tough economic times and wonder what the world is coming to — considering that the new basketball coach will pull in nearly $4 million this year.

Don’t worry. No government money is being used in this basketball bailout. And without a scientific poll in hand, I can still predict with great confidence that this is one stimulus package that an overwhelming majority of the state approves of — no matter what the cost.


Thanks to the anonymous poster below who asked me to clarify my statement here about agreeing with Gillispie’s stance late in the season about promoting the program. I do need to clarify. I don’t agree that UK coaches shouldn’t be promoters. In fact, I argued from the time before Gillispie was hired that they DO need to promote. Where I was in agreement with Gillispie was in his assertion that he never was a glad-hander, and that UK knew this when it hired him. They knew what he was when they hired him, so to hold it against him seemed unfair.

Here’s the column I wrote after Gillispie was fired, in which I explain this in detail (I put the part on this specific subject in bold face)


Let’s get this straight from the top. This was about winning and losing.

If Billy Gillispie had won a few more games as University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach this season, if he had slipped into the NCAA Tournament, UK administrators wouldn’t have been sitting in front of a bank of microphones yesterday talking about needing a coach who is a better ambassador.

Gillispie was not an ambassador. And surely his lack of diplomacy, his stubbornness with superiors and his sometimes prickly interactions with fans and media gave athletic director Mitch Barnhart and President Lee Todd an opening to fire him after his second season. But the door would not have been cracked had Gillispie been winning.

The same gruff, no-nonsense, West Texas approach that UK seemed ready to revel in when Gillispie arrived lost its charm, coincidentally, when the Wildcats started losing games in bunches.

Todd was right yesterday when he described the UK coaching position as more than just a coaching job. Some of us were stressing this even before Gillispie was hired. But he was hired, and it should be noted that whether he was what UK wanted or not, he was, in the end, always what he said he was.

Gillispie never pretended to be an ambassador. He came here as a plain spoken, simple coach, and he never deviated from that.

He didn’t bask in the spotlight of Wildcat Nation. After the starting lineups were introduced before every game in a darkened Rupp Arena, the spotlight shifted to Gillispie and his name was announced. Not once did he acknowledge it. Every time he could be seen with clipboard in hand, walking briskly out of the light and toward his players.

When it came to the public, Gillispie knew he would never be a Rick Pitino or an Adolph Rupp, the two iconic figures who presided over the Golden Eras of UK basketball. But he did believe he could win at UK, and win big.

He figured success would be his diplomatic currency. Or his diplomatic immunity.

His problem was, if you’re not winning, you need to be able to wield more than a clipboard to survive in a job of the magnitude of UK’s. There were some games that Gillispie was unwilling – or at least uncomfortable – in playing: public appearances, promotional efforts, media events.

At the very least, UK’s coach must display a measure of graciousness and camaraderie with the legions of fans who call in to his radio show. “The Big Blue Line” is a fine one that Gillispie walked clumsily and at times tactlessly – though, I do believe, always honestly.

It also might be a good idea for any future UK coach to sign a contract . Gillispie’s failure to do so in two years points to just how uncooperative he might have been with the administration.

But if this were just about those things, Barnhart and Todd would’ve taken action last year. If it were just about those things, they would never have let Tubby Smith, as fine an ambassador as the UK program has had (even though he, too, was uncomfortable with the magnitude), slip away. If it were just about those things, in fact, they’d never have hired Gillispie in the first place.

I’ve been in this business a while. I’ve never seen a winning coach let go for how he dealt with the media.

Gillispie was rude to Jeannine Edwards of ESPN. Twice. He treated ESPN reporter Dana O’Neal badly after UK invited her to Lexington for an “All-Access” story. He was aloof at times with boosters. As a coach, his substitution patterns were confusing, he played mind games with players and he reportedly could be harsh with them.

If he was guilty of anything here, it was of not making the appropriate adjustments, of not realizing the good will he was squandering, not just with his losses but with his behavior. He’ll have to live with that.

But UK also must acknowledge that it failed to fully accept the scouting report on Gillispie. And it cannot escape this stat sheet: In a span of exactly two years, two coaches have departed Lexington. One was a nice guy, one more abrasive. They are very different, but they share one trait: Neither won enough


And finally, this. Here’s my estimation of the importance of the UK coaching job, from my column the day after Tubby Smith resigned . . .

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, co
me 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.


20 thoughts on “Gillispie's parting gift

  1. Your prediction that the majority of the state supports paying John Calipari $4 mil to coach UK's team is laughable at best. Not even all UK fans approve of that.Let alone the countless UofL, Western, Eastern, Northern, and Murray State and all other state college alums who most likely don't approve.Quit attempting to paint the entire state with a blue brush.I would expect that kind of talk from some holler in Eastern Kentucky, not from an educated journalist from Louisville.

  2. The state is painted with a blue brush.Line up a vote right now. I guarantee 70 percent of the state would approve of Calipari's hiring.

  3. "In fact, I agreed with his stances late in his final season regarding whether he should promote the program more."Eric, really? You think it is NOT part of the UK head coaching job to make the program national news by promoting it any way possible? Pretty strange of you to agree with that stance, particularly in light of how John Calipari made an NIT team the #1 most discussed basketball program in the entire country in only a few short months.

  4. No, I argued at the time that it was.But Gillispie's point was that he never has been a guy who promoted the program and never agreed to be that kind of out-front guy.UK knew this when it hired him, then went and hired him anyway, without any real understanding of what he would be required to do.There certainly was nothing in the "memorandum of understanding" related to it.No, the UK coach very much needs to be out front, he needs to be bigger than the program. I was saying this throughout Gillispie's last year.But to hire a guy who isn't, then blaming him because he's not, isn't right.

  5. That is correct. The boosters willingly are paying the money to buy out the contract, and paying for Calipari's contract. They are rich, and they are doing it willingly. I don't see any big deal…especially when you consider the ridiculous amount of positive publicity surrounding the program.UofL paid off Crum, and paid Pitino a lot more. That worked out well. They likely paid off Ron Cooper. And if they fire Kragthorpe, they'll pay him off.Nature of the beast.

  6. But your blog didn't just say an overwhelming majority would approve of the hiring.You said that the "stimulus package" (which I assumed you meant the $3 mil buyout and the $4mil per year to Calipari) would garner overwhelming approval no matter what the cost.It's not like either of us really knows, but if the options were the standard: strongly approve, approve, neutral/don't care, disapprove, and strongly disapprove (and you put all the ones with NO answers into the "neutral/don't care" category, I'd be willing to bet you'd be disappointed.Again. The whole entire state is not blue.Quit trying to manufacture widespread blind loyal support to UK.It just doesn't exist.

  7. Tovrax … I disagree.Otherwise, why would people stand for it? Why would they support it?Why would they FUND it?Keep in mind, it's not state money. The last Bluegrass State poll — which was the most comprehensive polling of fans ever in this state — would seem to back me up in terms of numbers.Though I can see where you're coming from in terms of the dollars.

  8. Just because people don't support something doesn't mean they actively stand against it. Wouldn't you say a lot of people disapproved of (did not support) the War in Iraq at some point in time? Are we still there despite the overwhelming disapproval?As for who is paying for the $7 mil, I realize that is private funding and not public funding, but wouldn't it be more likely that a few rich people helped put that money together, and not many many middle/lower class people?You are ignoring:a) the large number of UK fans who were not entirely happy about Calipari's previous team's problem with NCAA violations.b) the even LARGER number of Kentuckians who just really don't care about UK basketball, or care more about other teams (Such as Murray St, Western Ky, and Louisville). If they don't care one way or the other, do you really count that as "support"?Just because people aren't protesting, doesn't mean they support something.Again, you are assuming that everyone who answered whatever poll you are referencing would automatically "support" such ludicrous spending in a time of recession.

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