Stock of coaches can soar or plummet in a season or less

Stock can soar or plummet in a season or less

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 4, 2009 

After our second Kentucky basketball coaching search in two years, I find myself thinking about the atmosphere in which big-time college coaches have to manage their careers.

Young Hollywood is less obsessed with who is "hot" or who is "now" than the college basketball coaching carousel.

Wall Street is less dependent on market timing than the college hoops coach looking to make a career move.

It is hard to imagine a more fickle, image-obsessed job market than one where "selling the hire" and "winning the news conference" are everything.

It has been widely discussed that, after Tubby Smith left Lexington in 2007, Kentucky never contacted John Calipari.

This time around, with Cal having taken Memphis to the 2008 NCAA finals and the '09 round of 16, Calipari was a "hotter" name. UK, having "struggled" for four straight seasons, seemed to bring different priorities into its job search.

All timing and perception.

Had Billy Gillispie and Texas A&M beaten Xavier in the second round of the 2007 NCAAs in Rupp Arena — instead of Louisville and Rick Pitino — would Billy G. have emerged with the UK coaching job?

All timing and perception.

The popular view of coaches can bounce wildly over the course of one season.

If, somehow, UK had been hiring its head coach this time around on Jan. 1, 2009, John Pelphrey would have gotten the call to come home.

At that time, Pelphrey's Arkansas team had just scored signature upsets of top-10 foes Oklahoma and Texas.

Coming off a 2008 season in which Pelphrey had taken Stan Heath's underachieving holdovers to the NCAA tourney second round, Pel was hot.

Yet, by the time the Kentucky job actually did open, Arkansas had lost 15 of 17 SEC games and received a letter of inquiry from the NCAA over a recruiting matter.

So Pelphrey — whose personal popularity in Kentucky remains off the charts — never really had a chance.

All timing and perception.

If, somehow, the UK job had opened on Feb. 26, I think Darrin Horn might have emerged as a major player in the search.

The night before, Horn's South Carolina team had scored a season sweep of Kentucky by pounding the Wildcats by 18 in Columbia.

The season before, the former Tates Creek High School star and Western Kentucky head coach had taken WKU to the NCAA round of 16.

On that morning of Feb. 26, he appeared on the verge of taking Dave Odom's underachieving holdovers into the NCAA Tournament.

Yet, by the time the Kentucky job actually did open, South Carolina had lost four of its final five and missed the NCAA Tournament.

Horn fell off the radar and his name went almost without mention in the UK speculation.

All timing and perception.

Had the Kentucky job opened on Jan. 1 or Feb. 26, I don't think Travis Ford would have gotten much play.

His initial Oklahoma State team struggled for the first two-thirds of the season. At least in Kentucky, there was not the buzz about the former UK point guard that there was over SEC coaches Pelphrey and Horn.

By the time the job actually opened, however, Ford had led his team on a late-season charge.

The Cowboys upset Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament, vanquished Tennessee in the first round of the NCAAs and scared the socks off top-seeded Pittsburgh in the second.

So when the UK job became available, Ford was the best positioned of all the young coaching guns from the commonwealth. His name was prominent in all the scuttlebutt about the job.

All timing and perception.

To the extent that we help shape perceptions, we in the sports media play a role in the whole crazy ebb and flow that engulfs the coaches.

Two years ago, when the Kentucky job was open, I panned the candidacy of then-Marquette coach Tom Crean. I was down on him because, at that time, he had not won an NCAA Tournament game without Dwyane Wade on his roster.

I just didn't think he'd done enough without Wade to merit the UK job.

However, since then, Crean beat Kentucky in the 2008 NCAAs at Marquette, then went to Indiana to clean up Kelvin Sampson's mess.

In Bloomington, I've been impressed with how Crean has handled a difficult situation and how he's recruited.

It's apparent to me now he would have been a good choice at Kentucky in 2007.

All timing and perception.

Even with the money and the fame that big-time coaches accrue, it's gotta be a crazy world in which to manage a career.

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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