Mark Story: Gillispie situation not about winning at all costs

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 27, 2009 

Memo to the national sports media:

If Billy Gillispie is out, don't go with the lazy "he was a victim of the win-at-all-costs Kentucky mentality" story line.

If Gillispie is to be removed after only two years as the University of Kentucky's head basketball coach, it is not merely a case of a school axing a coach who hasn't succeeded the way it is used to winning.

There's more to it than that.

In his two years, Gillispie has been an enigmatic, often-difficult person to deal with for his bosses, co-workers and others who have stakes in UK basketball.

A prominent high school coach — one who has players UK is recruiting — told me he tried to approach Billy G. to talk with him about a strategy matter at a Kentucky summer basketball camp.

Gillispie barely acknowledged the coach, turned his back and walked off.

Months later, the two ran into each other at a high school game, and Gillispie called him over and was friendly, even warm.

It left the high school coach deeply perplexed over what to make of the UK coach.

He wasn't alone.

From mid-level employees of the UK athletics department to prominent Kentucky boosters who were invited to travel to road games with the Wildcats basketball team, there are tons of similar stories about odd encounters with Billy Gillispie.

Gillispie's personality has not worn well in the constant spotlight that is Kentucky basketball.

Now, it is almost certainly true that if Gillispie's second Kentucky team was 31-5 and playing in the NCAA Tournament — as opposed to 22-14 and ousted from the NIT — his job status would not be in limbo.

Some facts of life are constant across industries. The more positive impact a salesman (or saleswoman) has on the bottom line, the more bad behavior a company will tolerate from the big producer.

But if you are going to be the "difficult one," you better darned well produce at a level that justifies how hard it is to put up with you.

That, Gillispie has not done.

Absent NCAA scandals, the University of Kentucky has no history of a prematurely quick hook with its major coaches.

In the post-Rupp era of basketball, Joe B. Hall went 13 years on the UK bench; Rick Pitino eight; Tubby Smith 10. When they chose to leave, all three made that choice themselves.

Eddie Sutton lasted only four years, but his downfall was the Emery Package scandal that landed Kentucky on a harsh NCAA probation.

Even the long-suffering UK football program has always given coaches a more than fair run. Fran Curci had only three winning years and got on NCAA probation, but Kentucky stuck with him for nine seasons.

Jerry Claiborne got eight years and retired. Bill Curry never had an overall winning year, yet Kentucky gave him seven — seven! — seasons.

The only short-timers on the list are Hal Mumme (four years), who was forced out amid a cheating scandal, and Guy Morriss (two years), who left for a more lucrative offer.

Whatever you think of the way Lee Todd and Mitch Barnhart have presided over UK athletics, there is no way they wanted to be in this position with the basketball coach only two years after they hired him.

In fact, I think both would tell you they consider it among their most significant achievements at UK that they stuck with embattled football coach Rich Brooks when he went 12-29 in his first 31/2 seasons at Kentucky.

The payoff for that patience has been a 20-12 record since, with bowl victories in three consecutive seasons for the first time in UK history.

Even acknowledging that the historical excellence of the Kentucky basketball program makes it harder to show patience, this is an administration with a track record of sticking with its own coaching hires when it is not popular to do so.

In that light, the fact they appear on the verge of pulling the plug on Gillispie says plenty.

Still, I have some sympathy for Billy G.

During the initial weeks after he left Texas A&M for UK in April 2007, there were rumblings that the coach tried to go back to College Station, only to be told, no thanks.

You wonder if Gillispie didn't realize almost immediately upon his arrival here that he'd taken a job that wasn't going to be a good fit for him.

It hasn't been.

Which is why, my national media colleagues, if UK is about to make a coaching change, there's more going on here than just hoops-crazy Kentucky and its win-at-all-costs mentality.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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