Fans are left with an empty feeling

jwarren@herald-leader.comMarch 28, 2009 

The televised announcement Friday was anticlimactic, word already having swept across the University of Kentucky campus that Billy Gillispie's UK basketball coaching career was over after just two seasons.

But Caleb Churchill, 22, watched anyway on the big-screen TV inside the Cat's Den at the UK Student Center. Churchill, a graduate student from Indiana, said he was saddened by the announcement, though he admitted that two years under Gillispie had been "a roller-coaster ride."

"I was a big fan of Coach G, even before we hired him," Churchill said. "I thought he was an excellent coach; I liked his philosophy and commitment. I just don't think he understood what he was getting into, although there's probably some blame to go all the way around."

At a table just a few feet away, Trevor Prater, an 18-year-old UK freshman from Grayson, said he was "thrilled" that someone else will soon take over as coach.

"I think he (Gillispie) was just a bad coach," Prater said. "What it comes down to is wins and losses. If he had done well on the court, none of the other things would have mattered."

Such comments were typical Friday afternoon. Around the UK campus — and at places around town where UK fans gathered, reaction ran the gamut — some people expressing joy, and others sadness, and some a mixture of the two.

One wasn't sure what all the fuss was about. Marlene Vertedor, 22, who is from near Mannheim, Germany, and is not a basketball fan, said she could tell something big was going on, but didn't know what.

Someone explained that UK was changing basketball coaches because the team had not won enough games. "You mean they don't change the players?" asked Marlene, who was visiting a friend who attends UK.

E.J. Horn of Versailles, who was eating dinner with family and friends at Joe Bologna's restaurant, said he was "sad to see anybody lose his job." But he said he agreed with the assessment of UK President Lee Todd and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart that Gillispie simply had not been a "good fit" for Kentucky.

Winchester's Ted Harrison, who was waiting to get a table at the restaurant, saw Gillispie's departure as a "good thing." Harrison said the departing coach had not been a "good ambassador" for UK.

"I was never a big Tubby Smith fan, but he understood that you have to be a good ambassador," Harrison said. "I don't know if Billy understood that."

Gillispie, however, was not without backers.

Will Hutchinson, a 2006 UK graduate from Lexington, stood outside the press conference Friday, wearing a cowboy hat in tribute to Gillispie and holding a sign that declared "Todd is a fraud." Hutchinson said he wanted Gillispie to know that some were upset at his dismissal.

"Nobody else is doing it," he said. "This is crazy."

Stephen Hicks, a 2004 UK grad, said it was "ridiculous" for UK to fire Gillispie for not displaying the public image that administrators wanted. Public relations skills can be taught, Hicks contended.

"He (Gillispie) is a proven winner," he said.

Charles Fackler, a 19-year-old freshman from Louisville, said firing Gillispie after just two seasons was "not a good thing," though he said Gillispie's on-court demeanor had been "awful."

"Barnhart should go, too, for making a bad hire," Fackler insisted. "Now, if we don't make a good hire for a new coach, the program will lose even more credibility that it already has."

Barnett Tirey, a sophomore from Oldham County, said UK had pulled the plug too quickly on Gillispie's career.

"I think he (Gillispie) was a good coach, although I understand that the higher-ups didn't think he was charismatic enough to be the coach here," Tirey said. "But he should have gotten another year.

"Two years isn't time enough to show what you can do."

Reach Jim Warren (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255

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