Commentary

With Gillispie out, Kentucky on hot seat

Originally Published: March 27, 2009
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- On April 6, 2007, Kentucky introduced Billy Gillispie as its new basketball coach in front of thousands of raucous fans at Memorial Coliseum. One fan even held a sign saying, "Billy G. is our savior."

On Friday afternoon, less than two years later and just down the hall from where that pep rally occurred, the Gillispie era came to an abrupt end. It is now the Kentucky program's image that needs saving.

Athletic director Mitch Barnhart wore a grim expression as he announced the firing of the coach who was supposed to lead the Wildcats back to the Final Four. Instead, Gillispie went 40-27 and saw his team miss the NCAA tournament this year for the first time since the probation-harnessed 1991 season.

Barnhart and Kentucky president Lee Todd insisted several times in an 18-minute news conference that the won-loss record didn't prompt Gillispie's dismissal. Rather, they said it was his refusal to embrace all the other things the job entails, like serving as an ambassador to the basketball-crazed state.

"We have not done all we can to manage the entire scope of the program and all that we expect," Barnhart said. "There's a clear difference in how the roles and the responsibilities of overseeing the program are viewed. It is a gap that I do not believe can be solved by just winning games. It is a philosophical disparity that I do not believe can be repaired, and again I say the chemistry is just not right."

[+] EnlargeBilly Gillispie
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeThe call came Friday for Billy Gillispie to step down as Kentucky coach.

Insiders say Gillispie brushed off speaking engagements and booster functions and was often rude or terse to people in and around the program, including his superiors. His contentious halftime interviews with ESPN's Jeanine Edwards became the public encapsulation of the alleged problems.

At the Southeastern Conference tournament earlier this month, Gillispie said that maintaining a public image "wasn't on the job description."

"You can be as public as you want to be and not win enough games," he told the Lexington Herald-Leader at the time. "It makes no difference. We have to win games. We have to recruit players that give us an opportunity to win games. That's what our task has been, and that's what it will remain."

Barnhart said those comments made it clear to him that Gillispie wasn't the right fit for the job. He and Todd expressed to Gillispie several times that those off-the-court responsibilities mattered.

"This is a complete job," Todd said. "It requires a lot more than just coaching and recruiting. You have to be an ambassador to this program.

"A large portion [of salary] comes from media contracts and the responsibilities there. In my mind, you don't have to spell out some of those issues, because that's where a lot of the support for the program comes from."

Basketball isn't a pastime in Kentucky; it's a religion. Friday proved that.

Six satellite trucks were parked outside Memorial Coliseum, while a news helicopter hovered in the rainy skies overhead. Even with several state media outlets covering Louisville's NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal in Indianapolis, about 50 reporters and photographers packed the news conference.

Barnhart also made oblique references to "the student-athlete experience" as a factor in his decision. There have been rumors that several players bristled at Gillispie's style and that some were contemplating a transfer. Stars Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson are mulling over their NBA options.

Barnhart said he met with the players for 15 minutes after informing Gillispie of the dismissal, and that the players were mostly exhausted from a long season that ended after three NIT games.

Gillispie's contract status has also been a sticking point and might continue to be one.

The coach declined to sign a formal contract during his time in Lexington, instead operating under a memorandum of understanding. The terms of the agreed-upon seven-year deal call for a $6 million buyout if Gillispie were let go. But Barnhart and Todd said Friday that the school's legal team interprets the memorandum of understanding as a one-year contract, and that Gillispie didn't complete the deal.

[+] EnlargeMitch Barnhart
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeMitch Barnhart cannot afford to swing and miss on his next basketball coach.

Barnhart said the school would offer Gillispie a settlement package that is far less than $6 million. Expect lawyers to wrangle over that one for a while.

Now the pressure will be on Barnhart, who botched his first attempt to hire a basketball coach. Florida's Billy Donovan, who was the top target in 2007 and is widely viewed as the Wildcats' chief candidate this time around, put out a statement Friday saying he wasn't interested in any other jobs. Barnhart said former Kentucky star and current Wildcats radio analyst Mike Pratt would aid in the search for a new coach.

About an hour before the news conference, Gillispie was spotted walking briskly into his office with a cell phone pressed to his ear. He declined to speak with reporters who followed him inside the door. Assistant coach Glenn Cyprien was seen loading office supplies into his SUV, and there were cardboard packing boxes scattered around the basketball offices.

The deposed coach had one small patch of support. Kentucky graduate Stephen Hicks protested outside Memorial Coliseum in the rain, wearing a cowboy hat and holding a sign that read, "Fire the media, not Billy." Hicks, 28, also called Barnhart "Public Enemy No. 1."

"You give a guy two years and now all of a sudden you're going to fire him?" Hicks said. "What's a guy got to do -- adopt some foster children and feed the homeless?"

Two friends stood with Hicks, including 31-year-old student Candi Garrison. She wore a blue shirt that read, "G: The Coach," and said she attended the pep rally on the day Gillispie was hired.

"Everybody was so excited that day," she said. "A whole new energy came to campus. Now the whole town is falling apart. It's a shame."

Kentucky now must move on to the next savior and scrub clean the two-year Gillispie mess the same way it disposed of Eddie Sutton's tenure. As you walk into the Joe Craft Center, the Wildcats' immaculate practice center, two flat-screen TVs flash images of the program's selling points. On one of the TVs, the loop included a screen that proclaimed "The Billy Gillispie Era," with a shot of the coach in the midst of clapping hands.

But there is no more applause for Billy Gillispie in Lexington.

Brian Bennett covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com.

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