Friday, March 27, 2009

The Fate of Billy G. and the Specter of John Calipari

From the hills around Pikeville to the river towns on the Mississippi, all of Kentucky is thinking about one thing--is University of Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie going to be fired today?

The universal assumption is that Gillispie is going to get the ax and the air is thick with the thrill of an upcoming public execution. It's all the teachers talked about at my daughter's high school. It's all the kids talk about. It's all my daughter talks about even though she's never even watched a UK basketball game.

Who knows! Maybe Gillispie will get a reprieve. But he probably should be fired even though he's only been here two years.

Billie Gillispie just refuses to grow.

The University of Kentucky basketball team has won seven national championships, more games than any other college, and is the pride and joy of most of the rural part of the state where I live.

When Gillispie left Texas A&M for UK two years ago, expectations were high that he would return UK to the Final Four. Gillispie had a reputation as a workaholic and rabid recruiter who brought the best out in his players. Unmarried, Gillispie was supposed to be all basketball all the time just like UK's fan base. Texas A&M All-American Acie Law was held up as a shining example of what Gillispie could do with players and Gillispie made a couple of big splashy signings right away in Patrick Patterson of West Virginia and Alex Legion of Michigan.

However, Gillispie turned out to be a bundle of eccentricities.

During his first year, Gillispie developed a reputation as an odd kind of guy. Gillispie seems to be more devoted to practice than any other aspect of the game. It's especially odd that he has hard practices on the days of games. Gillispie also seemed to enjoy playing mind games with players and made a lot of strangely oracular statements about how players were doing. More disturbing, Gillispie quickly developed a reputation as an alcoholic who had no social skills. My students swear that he's been banned from six bars in Lexington for being weird while drunk or that he isn't allowed to drive his own car because of his drinking. I don't know how much stock to put into these stories, but the reputation is definitely there.

However, Gillispie's first team at UK did well despite starting poorly and expectations were pretty high for this year. Holdovers Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford got the hang of playing for Gillispie, Patrick Patterson was everything he was supposed to be and more, and UK made it to the NCAA. True, Bradley and Crawford graduated, Alex Legion transfered as quickly as a Marilyn Munster date got out the door, and Patterson suffered a late-season stress fracture in his ankle. But it did look like Gillispie did get his teams to play really hard and effectively.

So, people in Kentucky were optimistic.

The optimism was wholly unwarranted. In Gillispie's second year, UK basketball fans got a look at the bottom of the barrel and began to think that Gillispie was going to keep them there for a long time. Once again, UK started slowly and seemed to rebound. They even got into the Top25 rankings after 5 quick victories in the SEC and the emergence of Jodie Meeks as a big-time scorer with 54 at Tennessee. But then they went off the rails. Patternson wasn't nearly as dynamic as he'd been before the stress fracture, Meeks started breaking down, and other teams matched UK's intensity. The Wildcats lost 8 out of their last 11 games in a weak SEC and even lost a final home game to cellar-dweller Georgia.

What made the whole thing even more wretched was that it became obvious that Gillispie wasn't going to change his approach and adjust to the situation--EVER. It emerged that Gillispie is a soulless workaholic who knows only one way to do things and will stick with that no matter how badly it fails. Nobody really likes these kinds of people, but the approach is acceptable when someone is winning. Former 49ers great Jerry Rice was a lot like Gillispie and everybody loved him because he was setting records and scoring touchdowns for Super Bowl teams. But when tireless workaholics start losing, the revulsion begins to show.

And that's been happening to Gillispie.

Making things worse was that it became obvious that Billy Gillispie doesn't give a damn for anybody's opinion but his own. Gillispie had a couple of dust-ups with a harmless ESPN sideline reporter, got into a public disagreement with AD Mitch Barnhart about whether he should embrace the "good-will ambassador" dimension of any coach's role, and insisted that all he had to do was "work hard" at recruiting and coaching. The stupidity of this is monumental. Any coach at a big-time college sports program is a celebrity and ambassador for the school. If nothing else, it's a major recruiting advantage. That's just as true for Roy Williams at North Carolina and Billy Donovan at Florida as it has to be for Billy Gillispie at the University of Kentucky. Given that Gillispie genuinely doesn't seem to grasp that, it started looking like he's too clueless to hold the job.

If Gillispie had been at North Carolina or Kansas, the university might have been able to diddle around about firing him for a couple of years.

But UK can't waffle. If Gillispie isn't going to succeed, they need to fire him before he drags down the program.

That's because basketball success at the University of Kentucky is a fragile thing.

The University of Kentucky actually doesn't have that much going for it as a basketball school. The bottom line is that Kentucky high schools don't produce a lot of great basketball players and needs to recruit most of its stars from out of state. But why would players lead New York, Chicago, or California to come to Lexington and the University of Kentucky? Kentucky is a poor state, the University of Kentucky is not that great of a university, and Lexington is not that great of a city.

Not bad--just not that great.

As Faye Dunaway would say, what's the motivation?

Until it's last bout of NCAA probation in the late 1980's, the University of Kentucky basketball program was able to cover it's structural problems by cheating. Like the University of Alabama and University of Oklahoma football teams, UK basketball was known as a big-time cheating program and had been on probation several times from the forties onward.

But UK made a decision to go in another direction when they hired Rick Pitino to run the basketball program in 1990. With Pitino, UK was able to succeed without cheating because they had an extremely attractive coach who said all the right things, did a tremendous job of recruiting, and melded all of the great recruits into outstanding teams that contended for NCAA titles. Great coaching would make up for great cheating in producing great basketball.

What UK is facing with Billie Gillispie is the specter of slipping to its "natural" level as a middling college team that makes some noise in the NCAA's every once in a while but isn't really a perennial contender like North Carolina.

And that's why Gillispie has to go.

But firing Gillispie doesn't solve the problem. How does UK regain top-level success in college basketball? Is there another Rick Pitino out there willing to carry UK back to the top, the very top.


But John Calipari is down in Memphis and he gets big-time recruits and goes to Final Fours even though he has low graduation rates. So what if Calipari relies on "one and done" guys and isn't that careful about standards or college or all that rot.

Calipari might have an aura of Tarkanian-like sleaze about him, but he definitely gets the job done.

And sleaze might be what UK needs to remain competitive in college basketball.


Anonymous said...

Wow! You've got some stones saying that the University of Kentucky is "not that great of a university" given where you teach.

Projection, maybe?

Too funny!

Ric Caric said...

Obviously, UK wasn't competing with Morehead State to recruit Tyler Hansbrough the same way they were competing with North Carolina. Rick Pitino used to complain that he couldn't compete with Duke for recruits because UK wasn't seen as being as good a university as Duke. That's where the problem lies.

Anonymous said...

I think it's terrible that Gillespie is going to get six million dollar buyout. I could care less about his abilities as a coach. What I do care about is how much money UK gets in state tax dollar support. No, our taxes do not directly pay his salary, but they most definitely indirectly help pay his salary and the buyout. I seen a listing recently of money doled out to state universities and the amount of money UK received was ridiculous compared to the amount of money received by Morehead. I don't think UK has all that much to offer either, but when comparing tuition costs versus education quality, Morehead has UK beat hands down. Several Morehead students were accepted the last few years into UK's law school, but I am not aware of any of them being awarded ANY scholarship money. Maybe it's just sour grapes on my part, but the state could get far more bang for their buck by allocating more funds to Morehead. Would Morehead attempt to compete at basketball on UK's level, if given the chance?

Todd Mayo said...

This reminds me of something President Bill Clinton said in the aftermath of the disastrous 2002 Congressional midterm elections. He said (in reference to GW and his congressional allies) that people will choose leaders who are perceived as "strong and wrong" even if there is a "smart" candidate who is viewed as week and dull. That's how you get two terms of Ronald Reagan (GAG), and that's how we got Rick Pitino in 1990.
Now we have (I think it's a done deal), John Calipari. I have no problem with UK becoming 'a big-time cheating program' as long as we don't get caught and as long as we become the force with which to be reckoned we once were. Why would we want to watch our Wildcats lose time after time? Our objectives are simple; winning seasons; SEC championships; national championships; and a beloved, charismatic coach. A head coach who is the coaching equivalent of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rolled into one. Above all, I want to win. However and whatever it takes. UK does not wear mediocrity well and it's time to put those years behind us. So, if we have to get a little dirt under our fingernails, then we'd best find someone who can do it. If 'Caliparian' sleaze is what we require then let's do this. At the end of the day, the objective of any coach should be to win! Period.