The ultimate job evaluation

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 28, 2009 

Mitch Barnhart better get this one right. Lee Todd, too.

At the University of Kentucky, those in charge of the sports program have no bigger responsibility than hiring the right coach to maintain the tradition of UK men's basketball.

When you've had to change coaches after only two years, it is a clear admission that you have blown that hire.

A Kentucky athletics director cannot survive two such failures.

I'm not sure a University of Kentucky president — even one who has contributed as much to the civic life of the commonwealth as Todd — can either.

So the pressure is on Barnhart and Todd in a way it never has been in prior coaching hires.

Let's stipulate up front, there is no perfect candidate for the Kentucky job.

I think the first call should go to Billy Donovan. I never thought two years ago Donovan would leave Florida to replace Tubby Smith.

For one, Tubby and Billy D. were buddies, having worked together on Rick Pitino's first Kentucky staff. For another, it just felt wrong to leave Florida for another Southeastern Conference school coming off back-to-back NCAA titles.

This time, Donovan has already issued a statement saying he "is committed to Florida."

Well, that may be. But he needs to ask himself one question: Does he ever want to coach basketball at a school whose fan base loves basketball as much as he does?

Jeremy Foley, the highly capable Florida athletics director, clearly values basketball. Thing is, Gators fans don't.

Hoops is just not a vital part of the culture in the outdoors-oriented Sunshine State.

This is the time to take the Kentucky job. By UK standards, Kentucky basketball has been mediocre four years in a row.

Much like Pitino's experience when he came to probation-strapped UK in 1989, a coach coming in now will get the credit for any future Wildcats success.

If Donovan really doesn't want to play ball and UK feels it has to hire a veteran coach, I'd stress the above point to someone such as Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Jay Wright (Villanova), Thad Matta (Ohio State) or Rick Barnes (Texas).

I'm not on the John Calipari bandwagon that many UK fans seem to be riding. I worry about all the smoke there always seems to be around Calipari-run programs.

If you can't make an immediate home-run hire, I think Kentucky should look long and hard at Travis Ford.

I'll acknowledge up front that the point guard from UK's 1993 Final Four team does not have as deep a coaching résumé as I would like in a prospective Kentucky coach.

There would be risk in picking the 39-year-old Ford. People will say Kentucky took a chance on an up-and-comer in Gillispie and it did not work, so they can't do that again.

But the situations are not analogous.

Unlike Gillispie, Ford grew up in the commonwealth (Madisonville) and understands what Kentucky basketball means to his core.

He employs the kind of high-octane, fast-breaking attack that UK fans crave. His first Oklahoma State team averaged 81 points a game.

There are no Final Fours on Ford's coaching track record. But at Eastern Kentucky, he built from rock bottom and took (in 2005) the Colonels to their first NCAA tourney appearance in 26 years.

At Massachusetts, Ford brought a team into Freedom Hall and beat Louisville and Rick Pitino. He also took the Minutemen to the finals of the National Invitation Tournament.

In his first season at Oklahoma State this year, his team got better as the season went along and closed with a rush to make the NCAA Tournament.

The Cowboys beat Tennessee in the Dance and put a major scare into No. 1-seeded Pitt.

Going forward, Ford has already lured a highly touted recruiting class to Stillwater for next season.

There are other attractive coaching candidates with Kentucky ties. John Pelphrey has always been more personally popular in the commonwealth than Ford.

But Pel picked a really bad year to go 2-15 in SEC games at Arkansas.

I have every bit as high a regard for Lexington product and South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn as I do Ford.

But, unlike Ford, Horn did not play at UK. For that reason, I think, as a young coach (36), he would have a harder time unifying and holding the Kentucky fan base.

There has been scuttlebutt that Ford has not, in the past, been a favorite of Barnhart. If that is true, the UK athletics director should take another look.

Ford is driven and hungry to succeed. In him, I see many of the personality traits — both good and bad — that were apparent in a young Pitino when he came to Lexington.

At this point, all stake holders in UK basketball can probably agree on one thing:

This time, Barnhart and Todd have to get it right.

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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