Todd wants 'happy' Big Blue Nation

ralessi@herald-leader.comjtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 31, 2009 

Top University of Kentucky officials say the expectations for the new basketball coach might never have been higher, both on and off the court.

"I want someone who can carry the entire program and get us back to not only where we hang more banners but we help pull this state forward and make Big Blue Nation a happy nation again," UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. told reporters Monday afternoon. "Big Blue Nation is a pretty demanding group, and I say that with all the respect in the world."

Todd declined to answer questions about candidates, specifically University of Memphis coach John Calipari, who became the focus of attention Monday.

But Todd made it clear that even though he expected the process to go "quickly," he wanted to ensure for UK recruits a coach who would be an ambassador for the university. Without mentioning ousted coach Billy Gillispie by name, Todd said he wants to make sure the next coach is better prepared for the public side of the job, from making Rotary Club appearances to fulfilling advertising contracts and promoting all facets of UK.

"I think we've got to make sure that there's people who understand the complete job that this is," he said. "It's probably hard for anybody to understand until they sit in the seat. But I think that is important. It's something we will explain over and over again if we have to to someone."

Because most of those qualities are intangibles, as opposed to a win-loss record, Todd said he will have to get a feel for the type of person the next coach is.

He said he'd "have to talk to them and talk to people who know them and read a lot and see what's been said and what part of that you believe and what you interpret."

Todd later told the Herald-Leader that he will remain involved in the search process, as he was two years ago when athletics director Mitch Barnhart led the team that selected Gillispie from Texas A&M to replace Tubby Smith.

When asked at which point he interviews a candidate, Todd said, "Whenever I want."

He wouldn't say whether he has had talks with anyone yet.

Unlike last time, Barnhart is getting help in the search from radio color commentator Mike Pratt.

"I'm not sure of anybody else necessarily" who will be intimately involved in the talks, Todd said. He said Barnhart sought input from many people.

Mira Ball, chairwoman of the UK Board of Trustees, echoed Todd's description of the wide range of expectations.

"It's so important to the people of this state, and I think that's pretty evident in what's happened in the last week or so," Ball said. "It's amazing how much this program means to the people of Kentucky. It's not like that anywhere else."

The trustees will most likely be informed of a hire right before the decision is announced, Ball said.

She said she hopes UK hires a basketball coach who will emphasize the university's academics and guide his players to high graduate rate as well as succeed on the court.

"I know they're going to do the very best job they can and represent us the best they can and get someone the boys will want to play for," she said of Barnhart and Todd. "They'll do their very best."

On a related note, UK and Gillispie appear no closer to a settlement on a buyout of the ex-coach.

Gillispie never signed the seven-year contract UK offered and instead was operating under a memorandum of understanding. One clause says that Gillispie, if fired, could be paid $1.5 million a year for as long as four years remaining on the contract, for a total of $6 million.

Todd said last week that the university interpreted the memorandum of understanding to be a "year-by-year" contract, and that UK would probably seek to settle.

Gillispie's attorney said over the weekend that he's prepared to take the matter to court to get his client the $6 million.

On Monday, Todd declined to say whether UK is gearing up for a legal fight.

"It just came up last week. So we haven't had a lot of preparation time," he said, adding that UK could tap one of the outside firms it sometimes uses to handle the issue.

Ball, however, was more optimistic.

"I really feel like they'll be able to work something out," she said. "I know Dr. Todd pretty well. He's very fair-minded."

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