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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Michael Steele: Where's Your Friends?

I didn't realize that Michael Steele was in such a bad way in a Richard Nixon petty paranoia style. But it looks like the first thing he wanted to do as RNC chair was to flush out his enemies in the Republican Party.

"I'm very introspective about things. I'm a cause-and-effect kind of guy. So if I do something, there's a reason for it... It may look like a mistake, a gaffe. There is a rationale, there is a logic behind it," he said. "I want to see what the landscape looks like. I want to see who yells the loudest. I want to know who says they're with me but really isn't."

"It helps me understand my position on the chess board. It helps me understand, where, you know, the enemy camp is and where those who are inside the tent are," Steele added. "It's all strategic."

Memo to Michael Steele: What the Republican Party really needs to do is figure out the location of the "friend camp" and how to find the friend camp is it still exists. Almost any Republican has lots of enemies and conservatives whine constantly about how nobody likes them. So the enemy tents are never hard to find.

It's the "friend tents" that Republicans need to look for.

The Guilt Free Life of a Blogger

The thing I like best about being a political blogger is that politics and the media are full of people who are worse than me. I always feel a lot better about myself after going through the political blogs and web sites for a few minutes.

Today's a good example. I couldn't watch Barack Obama's press conference last night because I was in the Morehead State University library. Missing Obama's press conference means that I've failed again as a blogger. How am I going to build my reader base if I keep abstaining from all the events political bloggers need to write about. What a loser I am.

But then I read in HuffPo that House Republican Whip Eric Cantor--the GOP's new conservative genius--skipped out on the press conference to take in a Britney Spears show. Britney Spears??? There's a triple threat if there ever was one. She can't sing, can't dance, and can't act either.

As my daughter would say, "ew, that's gross."

But I feel better about myself.

Yes, the guilt free life of a blogger.

Morning Thought

Maybe Rush Limbaugh could serve the conservative movement best by just going off the air.

Obama's Very Long Leash

Josh Marshall gets at a key point concerning the Obama presidency in his comments on last night's press conference.
One thing that was clear from tonight's press conference was why the White House keeps wanting to get Obama out in front of the cameras and on TV. Obama has a ready and mainly unflappable command of the issues confronting the country, which I think people find reassuring in itself. In a climate of crisis such as this, I don't think most people's focus is ideological. They're looking for competence and command, a sense that someone is sailing the ship, at helm with a clear sense of where they're going.
By "people," Marshall means all the constituencies who are not committed conservative. He's referring here primarily to white moderates and independents but also to progressives, African-Americans, hispanics, and gay people. Depending on how one counts, these constituencies add up to anywhere between 2/3rds and 4/5ths of the whole voting population and Marshall is right that these groups are going to evaluate Obama primarily on whether he appears to be serious, competent, and moving forward--the extent to which he avoids appearing to be a Bush-like caricature of himself representing the worst of American society.

Given that appearing to have "competence and command" is something that Barack Obama is very good at doing (and that's much of the reason he was elected), he's on a very long leash as president. In my opinion, Obama's general approval ratings and level of public support are going to stay high for at least the next five or six years. Even if the most recent bank bailout doesn't work, Obama's going to get the benefit of the doubt for taking a serious approach based on the best advice he could get from "the experts." Marshall is right in noticing that public opinion is not ideological on the bailout. That's partly because public opinion isn't sure about it's own idea of the "right approach." Consequently, the public could be willing to continue supporting Obama even if the "public/private partnership" idea doesn't pan out. As long as Obama is not making a fool of himself in the process, he's okay.

The Republicans and the conservative movement don't understand this yet, but they are a very big part of the public opinion dynamic that gives Obama such a long leash. George Bush's approval ratings were in the 20's and low 30's because his administration and the Republican Party largely perceived as a bunch of buffoons whose incompetence and corruption led the country to disaster. The most common term used for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and the other prominent Republican figures from the Bush years is "idiot." What's happened since Obama's inauguration is that the higher profiles of figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Steele, Michele Bachmann, and Jim Bunning have reinforced the whole buffoonish aura of the Republican Party that was created by the Bush administration. That's made Obama even more appealing by way of contrast and done a great deal to lock in the idea that Obama as a figure of "seriousness and competence."

Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, and Jim Bunning were all in the news yesterday making themselves and the Republican Party look more absurd than any comedian could make them look. Limbaugh was cartoonishly racist, Bachmann was cartoonishly "radical," and Bunning was doing a great impersonation of a stereotypically bitter, bullying right-winger who nobody in their right mind would vote for. Every time these people are in the news, they make Barack Obama look very good by way of comparison and keep giving the Obama administration a longer lease on popularity and credibility.

Given the public mood and the ridiculousness of the Republican opposition, I'd say that the Obama administration is on a very long leash indeed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Interest in Oakland Shootings

I have a little bit of a personal interest in the Oakland shootings because I used to live fairly close to the location of the shootings on 74th and MacArthur Boulevard.

Of course that was back in 1978 and 1979 when I was on my coming-of-age adventure with my then girl friend Susan from North Carolina. We lived at the corner of 10th and 23rd in an apartment building where everybody was African-American except for one other tenant. To put this into the context of my life, I had never even seen a group of African-Americans until my first year in graduate school in 1976. That's how white my upbringing was in upstate NY.

Straight too--1976 was the year I met an out gay person for the first time.

Anyway, now we were living in a 99% black neighborhood in what we thought was a major urban ghetto. We thought we should be scared but the neighborhood looked friendly. So we weren't.

Besides! The rent was cheap, we were broke, and we had already survived a rough warehouse district in Portland with nothing but a couple of interesting stories to tell.

Almost everything on the corner of 10th and 23rd was pretty mundane.

The adjoining streets were crowded with cars and guys were out just about every Saturday washing their cars during the summer. We were sort of hippy like and didn't care that much about appearances but we soon started washing our Honda too after getting some "wash me" hints drawn out on the dust.

We did have a prostitute/heroin addict living next door to us and she had a guy with a rainbow colored Afro wig staying with her. He'd play Barry White music all day while I was in our room (and it was a pretty nice room) reading Freud, Hunter Thompson, and Fustel de Coulange. It wasn't that bad, but I eventually decided to do my reading at the UC-Berkeley library about 10-15 miles away.

Gas was cheap in 1978/79.

What about the cops? I imagine we were like a lot of other people in the neighborhood in thinking of the Oakland cops as more of a menace than anything else. A police helicopter flew over our building at the same time every day. It was intimidating. It was annoying. And I'm pretty sure that's what they wanted to accomplish in our neighborhood--intimidate and annoy.

Being prone to fantasy, I used to daydream about getting a machine gun and shooting the helicopter out of the sky one day.

But I fantasized about a lot of other things in those days.

As for last weekend's shooting, killing four people is a horrible thing to do. I don't know how the family of shooter Lovelle Mixon is going to come to grips with the fact that he did this horrific thing. That seems even more difficult than coping with the sudden death of the officers for their families. Of course, it's all a nightmare.

I can say that I'm surprised that more of the police aren't shot in the United States. Given the volatile brew of aggressive police, an armed public, and the constant throbbing of self-righteous rage, one would think that there would be a lot more police shootings than there are. But people tend to hold back from shooting the cops.

And that's a good thing.

Lance Armstrong Catches a Break

I've never been a big Lance Armstrong fan, but I'm not particularly anxious to see Armstrong get humiliated on his comeback. I still remember Sugar Ray Leonard being beaten to a pulp by Terry Norris and I'm not anxious to see Armstrong go through the cycling version of that trauma.

So, I was glad to see Armstrong fracture his collarbone during a race in Spain. He might recover in time for the Tour de France, but I'm betting that the injury knocks him out of the race. Much of Armstrong's edge came from his super-conditioning and I don't think he'd want to give that up. I'd wouldn't be surprised if Armstrong dropped out of the Tour once he realizes he won't be able to prepare like usual.

Better to go out this way than be humiliated before the whole world on L'Alpe du Huez.

Sickening News on the Chris Brown/Rihanna Front

It appears that there's a lot of sympathy for Chris Brown in his beating of his pop-star girlfriend Rihanna. That's especially the case for teen age girls.

And what may be surprising is the level of support for Mr. Brown. While thousands of teenagers have certainly turned on Mr. Brown, many others — regardless of race or gender — defend him, often at Rihanna’s expense.

In a recent survey of 200 teenagers by the Boston Public Health Commission, 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible for what happened; 52 percent said both bore responsibility, despite knowing that Rihanna’s injuries required hospital treatment. On a Facebook discussion, one girl wrote, “she probably ran into a door and was too embarrassed so blamed it on chris.”

This reaction has alarmed parents and professionals who work with teenagers, and Oprah Winfrey was prompted to address violence in teenage relationships on her show. Boys who condone Mr. Brown’s behavior disappoint, but don’t shock Marcyliena Morgan, executive director of Harvard’s hip-hop archive. “But it’s
the girls!” she said. “Where have we gone wrong here?”

The sad thing is that so many teen-age girls learn this "she deserved it" crap then have to spend the rest of their lives unlearning it when they become targets of physical violence and rape themselves.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Wind Blowing from the Left

Who could have guessed that Bob Dylan's "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" would create a new cliche genre.

And who could have guessed that the wind would suddenly stop blowing from the right?

I follow the right fairly closely and I don't know that anybody on the right has had anything significant to say about AIG bonuses, the new version of the Geithner bailout plan, or anything else having to do with the financial sector crisis.

Has Rush Limbaugh been talking about bending over because AIG has a white CEO? What's Ann Coulter's latest joke about Michelle Obama's victory garden? Sean Hannity have anything interesting to say? Controversy from Bill O'Reilly's end?

What about the Republican political leadership?

Can we really say the Republicans have contributed to the debate if nobody listens?

The wind has shifted enough that the conservative/left pole being the Obama administration, TNR, and Slate and the liberal/left pole being occupied by liberal media outlets like HuffPost, TPM, Salon, and the Daily Show, and policy progressives like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Matt Taibbi, and Robert Reich.

The elimination of freak show conservatives from the economic debate does simplify things somewhat, but I'm still pretty much torn between Obama and the left-critique myself.

My bad ideological self like to agree with the liberal/left critique, take over the AIG and the big banks (Citigroup, BoA, Goldman Sachs, etc.), and let AIG's counter-parties and big bank shareholders hang out to dry.

But I would bet that my Kentucky state retirement fund is heavily invested in AIG's counter-parties (hedge funds, private equity funds, Goldman Sachs, and the like) and that retirement funds all over the country will be bankrupted if AIG's counter-parties are forced to eat their very real losses. A lot of my friends who lost tons from 401k plans are waiting for the retirement shoe to drop as well (I didn't have a 401k).

That strikes me as a very big problem with the liberal/left critique.

Not that I'm satisfied with the Geithner plan. As Brad DeLong explains, the government is going to set up the world's largest hedge fund to dispose of the "toxic assets" (i.e., mortgage-backed securities) currently held by financial institutions. Likewise, the government is going to be bringing in hedge fund managers to manage the operation and guaranteeing a certain floor price to the securities.

The big problem here is that the federal government still hasn't done anything to break the business culture of big-bucks entitlement that fueled the speculative investments that burned up everybody's 401k plans and pension funds.

God, this sounds like I'm reciting "This is the House that Jack Built."

Anyway, the point is that the federal government's approach will be restarting the cycle of reckless speculation that would result in another crash pretty quickly. There will be the same players because hardly anybody was fired, the same expectations for profit that originally got everybody into trouble, and hundreds of billions in government cash to leverage.

Where the hedge funds first leveraged my retirement money into a financial black hole, now it looks like Timothy Geithner wants them to leverage my tax money into a black hole as well.

Nevertheless, I view the Geithner approach as workable if the federal government decides to once again start using government regulation as a tool for discouraging speculative financial behavior.

That's the only way I see to thread the current needle.