Donovan's dis sends Cats fans into frenzy

In the wake of Billy Donovan's dissing of the Kentucky job, the only thing Wildcats fans can agree on now is their level of panic, Pat Forde writes.

Originally Published: April 5, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Thursday afternoon in the Big Blue Panic Room was one for the ages. And for the anguished.

"I just screamed at my wife and spit at my dog."

"I've lost my girlfriend, failed two tests … and not slept this week, for this?"

"The tradition is over."

Those were some of the thread headlines on the Catspause.com's free public message board. The forum is officially called "Rupp Rafters," but the Panic Room was the more appropriate title today.

Kentucky fans had gathered there to spew grief, outrage, shock and venom over the news that Billy Donovan wasn't coming to the bluegrass after all. At one point, more than 16,000 bilious people had piled onto the site -- as someone wryly observed, that's 4,000 more than the listed capacity of Donovan's arena at Florida, the O'Connell Center.

Rupp Arena, of course, holds 24,000. Which is one of the reasons so many Kentucky fans were so certain Billy The Kid would walk away from his self-made dynasty and return the Wildcats to prominence and dominance.

Rick Barnes
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesTexas' Rick Barnes might be Plan B, but that's not sitting terribly well with Kentucky superfans.
Who, they reasoned, could turn us down?

Since March 22, when Tubby Smith shockingly fled for the relative obscurity and serenity of Minnesota, Kentucky fans' lust for former UK assistant Donovan has increased unabated. Stoked by bogus reports of a "done deal" from anonymous Internet posters, Kentucky's age-old sense of entitlement spiked this week in anticipation of Donovan fast-breaking from Gainesville to Lexington just days after his second straight national title.

Everybody had a source, of course. Some of the best this week from Rupp Rafters:

• The person who knows former UK star Rick Robey, who in turn knows athletic director Mitch Barnhart's private jet pilot -- thus privy to the inside scoop on Kentucky's end.

• The person in law school with a fellow student whose mother works with Corey Brewer's mother -- thus privy to the inside scoop on Florida's end.

• The person who has a buddy in Paintsville, Ky., who is the cousin of Paintsville product John Pelphrey, the former Kentucky star and former Donovan assistant at Florida. That guy had Pelphrey ticketed for Lexington as an assistant to Billy.

So you can imagine, after being fed rock-solid information like that, why some Kentucky fans were so stunned by Donovan's refusal to even meet with Barnhart before renewing his loyalty to Florida.

Thankfully, the online anarchy does not appear to have carried over into the streets. A check out the window here in Louisville at midafternoon revealed no anguished fans tearing their clothes and beating their breasts. There have been no reports of looting, no structure fires, not even any groups marching upon the UK administrative offices in Lexington with pitchforks and torches.

But I do predict a spike in bourbon sales.

Given what transpired Thursday, here are your biggest winners and losers:

Biggest winner: Florida AD Jeremy Foley. He's now outflanked Notre Dame for his football coach, Urban Meyer, and fought off Kentucky to keep his basketball coach. He's 2-0 in high-stakes employment battles against arguably the biggest name in each sport. If he weren't the guy who hired Ron Zook, Foley would be almost perfect.

Biggest loser: Kentucky's consolation prize. Whoever the Wildcats settle on will be considered a major letdown by the fans after the Donovan flirtation.

Fact is, only Donovan and Rick Pitino were slam-dunk candidates for the Kentucky job. Both had the résumé, the style and the understanding of the job to inspire Paducah-to-Pikeville acceptance.

After them, it gets tricky. And if you don't believe, then check the Balkanization from the folks at Rupp Rafters. Among the thread headlines:

"Come Home Ricky P!"

"Get [John] Calipari in here nowwww."

"John or Travis?" (That's Pelphrey or Ford, respectively.)

"[Billy] Gillispie is The Answer."

"The Offiacal(sic) Coach [Tom] Crean Thread."

"Please Not Tom Crean!!!!!!!!!"

"Bruce Pearl!!"

"[Mark] Few or [Jay] Wright?"

The one guy who wasn't getting a whole lot of cyberlove was Texas' Rick Barnes, who ended the speculation Thursday night by saying he'd remain the Longhorns' coach.

But Barnes had the allure of owning at least two things Tubby Smith lacked: a phenomenal recruiter's personality and a comfortable public persona. If he could get Kevin Durant to come out of Maryland and go to Texas, he'd have had a great chance of getting many of the A-list players Kentucky keeps losing to North Carolina, Duke, Kansas -- and, yes, Florida. And his ability to work the media, work a room full of fans and communicate well from behind a podium would have fit with the demands of the Kentucky job.

The question was whether Barnes knows what he's doing on the sideline. Bill Simmons isn't the only guy who thinks Barnes can't coach his way out of a paper bag.

But it wasn't just Barnes. Everyone comes with a question mark now.

Pitino said right away he's not a candidate, and Kentucky wouldn't have hired him anyway. There are no second acts in American coaching lives. No successful ones, at least.

Calipari is the worst possible fit. A school with a long and tawdry history of corruption in the basketball program cannot hire a man whose lone Final Four appearance, with Massachusetts in 1996, has been expunged from the NCAA record books because of violations.

Tubby Smith
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTubby Smith's teams have made nine Sweet 16s. Can he replicate that success with the Golden Gophers?
Gillispie has done a great job at Texas A&M, but he's won a total of three NCAA Tournament games -- and if Louisville freshman Edgar Sosa hadn't melted down at the end of the second-round game against the Aggies this year, he would still be without a Sweet 16 appearance.

John or Travis? Nice names. Know and understand the culture. Not enough on the résumé.

Crean would probably do well if given the chance, but he's never won an NCAA Tournament game when he didn't have Dwyane Wade.

Bruce Pearl is intriguing, but it's impossible to see Kentucky hiring Tennessee's coach, and his personality might not mesh with Barnhart's.

Few or Wright? Few and far between. Wright already has said he's not interested, and Few could be overwhelmed making the jump from Gonzaga to Kentucky.

Whether any of the latest candidates become the fifth Kentucky coach to win a national title remains way, way unseen.

But this does not: Barnhart's future as Kentucky athletic director is hanging in the balance. The tortured process he went through in hiring Rich Brooks as his football coach in 2002 remains a sore point with the fans, who watched Barnhart whiff on at least five candidates before pulling Brooks out of retirement. He can't afford another whiff -- not in the hiring process, and not in the performance of whomever he hires.

Given the way coaching searches work, a divided fan base usually unifies once it has someone in place to follow. But if you want to know how angst-ridden, how disappointed and how conflicted the Kentucky fan base in the Panic Room was on Thursday, check this thread headline:

"Can we ask Tubby back?"

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.