Commentary

Blame goes to Gillispie and Kentucky

Originally Published: March 27, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

After weeks of simmering angst, Billy Gillispie's short, ugly tenure as coach of Kentucky is over. His two years in Lexington were a spectacular failure for Gillispie personally. And for the Wildcats as a basketball program.

[+] EnlargeBilly Gillispie
Mark Zerof/US PresswireBilly Gillispie and Kentucky were not a good fit from the start.

This was a rushed marriage that rarely felt right or happy. In figuring out how we've arrived so quickly at this ignominious divorce, one thing is clear: There is ample blame for both sides.

Start with the Kentucky brass, athletic director Mitch Barnhart and president Lee Todd. After being turned down publicly by Billy Donovan of Florida in 2007 and rebuffed privately by Jay Wright of Villanova and Rick Barnes of Texas, they panicked. Reacting hastily after the Barnes talks broke off, they lunged at the guy they knew would say yes: Texas A&M's Gillispie.

The decision seemed to be fueled by a fear that mighty Kentucky could not suffer the prestige hit of repeated rejections. Especially not after Barnhart went through an entire Rolodex of football coaching candidates in 2002 before getting Rich Brooks -- which ended up working out splendidly after a rocky start.

But that was Kentucky football, and this is Kentucky basketball. And the Wildcats are not supposed to grovel for a coach.

Never mind that former athletic director C.M. Newton took more than two months and at least a couple of rejections (Lute Olson and P.J. Carlesimo) in 1989 before getting around to hiring a guy named Rick Pitino. This time around, UK hurried a critical decision.

Vanity and rabbit ears for criticism helped push Barnhart into the basketball version of a Las Vegas wedding. And you know how those tend to work out.

Had Kentucky taken the time to carefully conduct its search, it might have learned that Gillispie's prickly personality and uneven moods made him poorly suited for the fishbowl existence of coaching the Wildcats. Even being a bachelor turned out to be a complicating factor, since everyone wanted to know Gillispie's personal business. And because the coach was hardly a stay-at-home shrinking violet, the gossip mill churned at a hysterical pace.

This was a rushed marriage that rarely felt right or happy. In figuring out how we've arrived so quickly at this ignominious divorce, one thing is clear: There is ample blame for both sides.

Nobody much cares what you do at UTEP and Texas A&M. At Kentucky, they care about every breath you take.

They also care about winning. And while Gillispie had done tremendous work reviving UTEP and A&M, he brought a grand total of three NCAA tournament victories with him to Lexington. That's the fewest of any new hire at UK since Joe B. Hall, a former Adolph Rupp assistant who had never been a Division I head coach.

So Barnhart brought in an odd duck with a decent but not dazzling résumé and foisted him off as the savior of a listing program. His failure to gauge the fit between school and coach is impossible to ignore. Now, after just two years, he's in the humiliating position of having to admit he blew it.

Quite frankly, the apparent fact that Barnhart will be in place to make a second basketball hire is either shocking or foolish. Or both.

But that's only half the failed marriage. The other half is Gillispie, who insiders say has absolutely flunked Interpersonal Relationships 101.

The trouble began almost immediately, when Gillispie obstinately refused to sign his contract. He still hasn't, which had to fray his relationship with Barnhart. Every time the subject came up, Gillispie had a flippant response that indicated this was no big deal -- but multimillion-dollar contract impasses always are a big deal.

So are losses to Gardner-Webb. Gillispie did that in the second game of his tenure, showing a strategic stubbornness that would become an unwelcome hallmark of his tenure. There would be no adjustments; it would simply be up to the players to come around to Billy's way.

The 2007-08 Wildcats did eventually come around, going 12-4 in Southeastern Conference play and earning Gillispie co-coach of the year honors. But as early as New Year's Day, insiders were saying the coach seemed miserable and many wondered whether he'd look to leave after only one season.

[+] EnlargeMitch Barnhart
AP Photo/Rob CarrA rushed decision two years ago has Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart looking for a new coach again.

Kentucky barely got into the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round for the first time since 1987. Two players transferred.

This season, more was expected by a less-than-realistic fan base and less was delivered. Once again, the angst began immediately with a season-opening loss to VMI. Once again, playing time for some players rose and fell seemingly on a whim. Once again, a slow start had the commonwealth wondering.

But then Kentucky rallied, starting with a valiant, last-second loss to Louisville in Freedom Hall. In late January the Wildcats were 16-4 overall, 5-0 in the SEC, and the fan base was speculating about an undefeated league record.

Instead the Wildcats wound up 8-8, collapsing in a weak league and losing their last four regular-season games for the first time since 1907. Along the way Gillispie grew more publicly critical of his players, often foisting the blame onto their shoulders.

After losing in the second round of the SEC tournament, the Cats were out of the NCAAs. And at Kentucky, the three dirtiest letters in the alphabet are N-I-T.

I was in Lexington on Selection Sunday and it was the saddest town in America. A populace that treats NCAA bids as a birthright stayed indoors on a morose, rainy day. The sports bars had few people in them wearing blue. Meanwhile, hated rival Louisville was the overall No. 1 seed.

The season was an official catastrophe.

Before then, though, it started to become clear how many people were put off by Gillispie's personality. The list is longer than 6-foot-8 Patrick Patterson. Some former players took public potshots at him for treating people poorly, and Barnhart's frustrations came through clearly in a revealing all-access story by ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil.

Still, Kentucky and many other schools would tolerate a jerk who wins big. A jerk who goes to the NIT is another matter.

So that's how we got here, in just two years, to Black Friday in the commonwealth.

Kentucky blew a hire at its most public position at a critical time in the program's history. Billy Gillispie blew the chance of a lifetime.

There are no winners here.

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

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