Gillispie, Kentucky part ways
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Billy Gillispie thought winning at Kentucky would be enough, that adding a Final Four banner to the rafters at Rupp Arena would endear him to one of college basketball's most ardent fan bases more than any handshake, autograph or toothy grin ever could.
He won, but not enough. He shook hands, but not enough.
After just two years, Kentucky had had enough.
The school fired Gillispie on Friday, citing philosophical differences between the hard-scrabble coach and an administration that views its head coaching position as more than just another job.
"There is a clear gap in how the rules and responsibilities overseeing the program are viewed," said athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "It is a gap I do not believe can be solved by just winning games."
Losing too many games during Gillispie's brief two-year tenure certainly didn't help.
The Wildcats went 40-27 under Gillispie, including a 22-14 mark this year that tied for the second-most in the program's 106-year history and forced them to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
After enduring a rocky 18-13 season in 2007-08, the Wildcats appeared to have turned a corner two months ago.
Kentucky roared to a 5-0 start in the Southeastern Conference behind the play of star Jodie Meeks, who poured in a school-record 54 points in a victory over Tennessee in January.
Things started to unravel shortly thereafter. Kentucky dropped eight of its final 11 regular season games, including a deflating home loss to woeful Georgia on Senior Night. The Wildcats couldn't make it out of the SEC tournament quarterfinals, relegating them to the National Invitation Tournament for the first time in 30 years.
The Wildcats fought valiantly in the NIT, edging UNLV at Memorial Coliseum, the same place where a pep rally was held on the day of Gillispie's hiring two years ago. A victory at Creighton followed, and Kentucky hung tough with Notre Dame until the final moments.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart's opening statement cited chemistry problems with former coach Billy Gillispie. Story
He admitted on his radio show Thursday that winning 40 games in two years is good at a lot of places. Those places, however, aren't Kentucky.
"A lot of teams would be happy with 22 (wins) but not always around here when it's not the right 22," Gillispie said.
In a state where basketball is religion and its most successful coaches and players are treated with reverence long after they've moved on, Gillispie could never quite fit in.
"This is a complete job that requires a lot more than just coaching and recruiting," university president Lee T. Todd Jr. said.
Gillispie signed a memorandum of understanding in Barnhart's house following a whirlwind courtship that lasted less than a day. Yet he never signed a formal contract as his lawyer and the university fought over the wording.
In the end, that decision may end up costing him millions. Barnhart said the university did not plan to pay Gillispie a $6 million buyout that was to be part of his seven-year deal that remains unsigned.
"Suffice it to say it will be less than that," Barnhart said.
Barnhart said the school would abide by the memorandum of understanding, but he considers it to be a year-to-year contract. Gillispie made $2.3 million annually.
Even as the program suffered embarrassing losses to schools like Gardner-Webb and VMI, Gillispie stubbornly refused to change his coaching strategy. And he continued to hold draining two-hour practices on game day, a move Gillispie said was designed to toughen the players up but sometimes left them spent at the end of close contests.
It's unclear which players will stick around for another rebuilding effort.
Meeks has been noncommittal about his future, though forward Patrick Patterson said on Wednesday he plans on sticking around for his junior season. Gillispie inked two high-profile signees, center Daniel Orton and forward Jon Hood, though they would have options to go elsewhere if they choose.
The Wildcats also have a number of options at coach, so long as they're not set on Florida coach Billy Donovan.
Kentucky actively pursued Donovan two years ago before Donovan decided to stay with the Gators. He said he isn't going anywhere this time either.
"In response to the rumors circulating about my interest in other jobs, I wanted to address this as quickly as possible," Donovan said in a statement. "I am committed to the University of Florida and look forward to continuing to build our program here."
Other candidates could include Memphis coach John Calipari, Oklahoma State coach and former Kentucky star Travis Ford, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
A source told ESPN.com that Calipari had not been contacted by Kentucky and likely would not be interested in the job if approached. Calipari, whose team lost to Missouri in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night, has been rumored to be on the Wildcats' short list. But the source said that, with a strong recruiting class coming in and a tradition already established at Memphis, Calipari wouldn't leave if the UK job was offered.
Izzo had no comment when asked about the Kentucky opening after Michigan State's victory on Friday in the Sweet 16.
Pitino remains beloved across much of the state more than a decade after leaving the Wildcats for the NBA. He angered some when he decided to coach arch rival Louisville, though his eight years in Lexington are still considered among the best in the program's long history.
Gillispie's may be remembered as something entirely different, a two-year mistake for a coach and a program ill-suited for one another.
Dana O'Neil and The Associated Press contributed to this report.