Sports

Jerry Tipton: Pratt swinging for the fences

Former Kentucky All-American Mike Pratt isn't sure exactly how he can help as a participant in UK's search for a new basketball coach. But as he did as a glue-guy on the great Dan Issel-led UK teams in the late 1960s, he's willing to do what he can to bring about a successful result.

When asked to define his role in the search, Pratt said, "I really don't know what it is. Mitch (Barnhart, UK's Athletics Director) asked me to be a sounding board, to bounce things off me. That's how I understand it."

Pratt, who will be 61 on Aug. 4, brings a wealth of basketball experiences to the process. After a standout career at UK, he played briefly in the old American Basketball Association. He later worked as an assistant for Lee Rose at UNC-Charlotte, where he ultimately became head coach (55-52 in four seasons).

Barnhart and UK President Lee Todd will be the driving forces in the search for a coach to succeed Billy Gillispie, who was fired on Friday. Pratt sees himself as someone who can bring an insider's basketball knowledge to the process.

"I'm not advocating anybody," he said on Saturday. "I'm looking at the big picture for them."

Pratt is willing to do whatever Barnhart and Todd feel can be of help — make a call, voice an opinion.

When UK looked for a coach two years ago, Barnhart used little outside input. Two trusted lieutenants from the UK Athletic Department and an outside search firm helped him hire Gillispie.

At this year's Southeastern Conference Tournament, Barnhart noted the importance of learning and adjusting to life experiences. Pratt's involvement sends the signal that the UK AD will practice what he preached by making the process less insular.

"I think Mitch is pretty prepared for this thing," Pratt said. "Like all ADs, they all have short lists."

Pratt declined to identify anyone on Kentucky's short list.

When asked what UK will be looking for, Pratt cited the comments made by Barnhart and Todd at Friday's news conference. The school wants a coach who brings many qualities to the job: experience, integrity, people skills, a role model.

"The total package" was a phrase Pratt repeatedly said.

Style of play — always a concern for UK fans — is something to consider. "Everybody wants an entertaining style," Pratt said. "Absolutely."

But style of play does not rate ahead of the need to find a coach who acknowledges and masters the many facets of a job like Kentucky coach. One reason Gillispie is no longer UK coach is because he did not embrace the need to be an ambassador to the fans.

"It's not just Xs and Os," Pratt said. "A great high school coach can X and O. It's the total package — an ability to relate to all people. It's not just about Xs and Os and being a basketball junkie.

"You've got to do a little bit of everything, and be happy to do it."

Pratt acknowledged that Kentucky needs to hit a home run with this hire. To continue the baseball analogy, Pratt will be the wise old bench coach who shares his thoughts with the manager (Barnhart) and owner (Todd).

"Home runs are out there," Pratt said. "It's just a matter of whether you can get to the plate and get the right pitch."

Ahead of her time

She was the "crazy mother" when her son, Alex Legion, decided to transfer from UK in December of 2007. Now Annette Legion feels vindicated.

"I just thank God I kept my mouth shut and everybody can see," she said of UK firing Billy Gillispie as coach.

Mrs. Legion, a minister who claimed to have the gift of prophecy, was perceived as a meddling mother when her son transferred after one semester. At the time, she said it was her son's decision. He didn't like Gillispie's tactics.

Subsequently, other players transferred. And in the Friday announcement of Gillispie's firing, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and school president Lee Todd noted the importance of athletes having a positive experience.

Mrs. Legion declined to speak specifically about her son's experiences. She noted her agreement with Barnhart: in exchange for a release, the Legions agreed not to speak ill of UK.

Of her son's experiences at Kentucky, Mrs. Legion said, "It was positive all the way other than what we had with Billy."

She expressed sympathy for UK fans having to endure a second search for a coach in three years. She also had a bit of advice for Barnhart.

"I just want Mitch to take his time when choosing a coach," Mrs. Legion said in a reference to the 24-hour courtship of Gillispie.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Legion said she thinking about writing an advice book for parents of athletic prospects. Her main theme? "Be aware," she said, "and do your homework before releasing your kid."

Role model?

Now an SEC basketball consultant, C.M. Newton went two-for-two in hiring basketball coaches as Kentucky's Athletics Director. Rick Pitino turned a national embarrassment into a Final Four program in four years. Tubby Smith averaged 26 victories per season, won a national championship and appeared in three other region finals.

So how did Newton do it?

He started by identifying the coaches he believed could do the job of coaching at Kentucky.

When asked about a search firm, Newton said, "I was my own search firm."

As a former UK player and SEC coach, he knew the basketball landscape. Yet, he called on other wise heads like Dave Gavitt and Vic Bubas for advice.

Then with about 12 names in place, "I started down the list," he said. "I called them. 'Mike Krzyzewski, would you be interested?' If the answer was no, we moved on."

When he became Athletics Director in 1989, Newton took the job on two conditions: He wanted direct access to the school president, and he wanted the freedom to hire and fire coaches.

I believe Newton is quietly helping UK's search this time, although he flatly denied any involvement.

Goodbye, Billy G

Here are some leftovers from Billy Gillispie's news conference on Saturday at Lexington's Marriott Griffin Gate hotel. The setting was the Bluegrass Pavilion, a white heated tent the hotel uses for weddings and other functions.

■ When asked about UK saying he was not the "right fit" for the job, Gillispie said, "That's OK. Whatever people say, it's OK."

He said he was a loyal, hard-working employee.

■ Gillispie acknowledged meeting with UK president Lee Todd about a week before the firing. He said he answered about five of Todd's questions in a "very, very good conversation."

■ When asked if there was anything he'd do differently the last two seasons, Gillispie said, "I wish we could have won more, yeah. ...

"I think we did great. We didn't win the right kind of games."

■ Gillispie did not embrace the public component of his job. But he said it was wrong to think he did not enjoy mingling with UK fans.

"I enjoy the public," he said. "I love this town or city or whatever you want to call it."

Gillispie again insisted that coaching and recruiting must take priority.

"I don't think 'celebrity' is what you declare yourself to be," he said before adding, "I never declined to sign a ball or an autograph."

■ When asked about being fired after only two seasons, he said, "I came here with a one-day plan. I've never been a five-year guy. That's the reason we've been able to get players to be better."

■ Gillispie broke the news to the players an hour or so before UK announced the firing.

Asked what he told the players, Gillispie said, "Whoever the next guy is, play your tails off for him."

He said he also told the players, "I'll keep the same phone. I'll be available to you for the rest of your life."

■ When UK ordered the assistants to clean out their offices by 5 p.m. Friday (or less than three hours after Gillispie was officially fired), it seemed like adding insult to injury. But Gillispie didn't take it that way.

"Heck," he said, "when it's time to move on, it's time to move on. It's not a big deal."

Then he added, "Want to buy my house? It's on the market."

■ Gillispie had a catchy answer when asked what advice he'd give the next Kentucky coach. "Someone told me a long time ago: the worst vice is advice."

Billy G fan

Candi Garrison came to what amounted to Billy Gillispie's farewell news conference on Saturday. She wore her feelings in the form of a blue T-shirt that had a capital G with the words "The Coach" underneath.

Garrison, a teacher's assistant at Lexington's James Lane Allen elementary school, said she also attended Gillispie's introductory pep rally in Memorial Coliseum two years ago.

"I think it's awful, terrible," she said of UK firing Gillispie. "He wasn't given enough time. Just because your media skills are not up to par, that's not a reason to fire anybody.

"If they think it's going to be better, I'm unconvinced."

Philosophical view I

Kentucky's season ended in a loss at Notre Dame on Wednesday.

Before that game, Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey took a philosophical view of UK Coach Billy Gillispie being on the hot seat.

Birds fly. Fish swim. Coaches face the firing squad.

"We all know we're going to rotate through that seat," Brey said. "It's just a matter of can you get off it."

Maybe that's one reason why coaches advise not to embrace success or let failure send you into depression. Both are imposters.

"It all comes in cycles," Brey said. "Up. Down. People on you."

People toasting you as a hero.

"But we all know what we signed up for," the Notre Dame coach said. "High risk. High reward."

Philosphical view II

I once asked John Wooden who he thought was the best coach. I expected to hear him say Dean Smith, Bob Knight or some other coaching luminary.

Instead Wooden said, "Some coach at Ball State might have gone 14-14 and done the best coaching job in the country."

Mike Pratt, who will assist UK's search for a new coach, endorsed that view. That's not to say UK is likely to pluck some coach from obscurity, only that good coaching is not confined to the headline makers.

"Some coaches never get to a spot where they can get to the Final Four," Pratt said. "They may be terrific, but Big Blue Nation doesn't know about them."

Pratt said that NBA scouts are knowledgeable about good coaches because they watch games at all levels. The scouts look for three qualities: organization, great effort and a willingness to share the ball.

"If that were easy, everybody would be 26-2," Pratt said. "Like recruiting, it's hard. And it's not an exact science."

Happy birthday

To Sean Woods. He turns 39 today.

Woods is one of UK's beloved "Unforgettables," although he'd concede he comes closer to forgettable compared to homegrown teammates Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey.

In his first season as a college head coach, Woods faced a major rebuilding task at Mississippi Valley State. He got the team through a 7-25 record and middle-of-the-pack finish in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

"When you're coaching, it makes you feel that much older," Woods said of turning 39. "I feel good. I still get out there with the players and do stuff."

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