Mark Story

Barnhart: 'It's going to take time'

Let's cut to the chase. Mitch Barnhart says Billy Gillispie is not on the proverbial hot seat.

I felt funny even asking that about a second-year coach. But with all the grumbling coming from a very restive Kentucky fan base, I did.

"Two years is a pretty short time frame for anybody to start gauging whether we are capable of getting to a Final Four under a coaching staff," the Kentucky athletics director said. "Billy is working extremely hard to try to put Kentucky basketball back where the fans want it to be. I know nobody wants to hear it, but it's going to take time to get our roster filled out like we need it to be."

Barnhart was speaking in the bowels of Rupp Arena on Saturday shortly after UK lost a fiercely contested 73-70 hoops slugfest with LSU.

For longtime Kentucky basketball fans, it was a loss heavy with symbolism.

At 19-10, UK has now hit double digits in losses in four straight seasons for the first time in its regal men's basketball history.

With two regular-season games and the SEC Tournament left, Gillispie's second team is in real danger of becoming the first Kentucky squad to miss the NCAA tourney since 1991.

Gillispie's record as Kentucky head coach stands at a pedestrian (by UK standards) 37-23.

If my e-mail inbox even comes close to accurately reflecting the current temperature in the Kingdom of the Blue, doubts about whether Billy G. is the right man to sit in the seat made great by Adolph Rupp are spreading like a California wildfire.

Which is unfair, Barnhart says.

"This was the SEC Coach of the Year last year," Barnhart said of Gillispie (an award shared with Tennessee's Bruce Pearl). "We lost two players (the graduated Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley) who were scorers and experienced scorers, who were the kind of guys who made plays at the end of games like we lost today."

Other than losing basketball games — which never goes down well at Kentucky — it seems to me two things surrounding Gillispie have become significant irritants for many UK fans this winter.

One is the fact that the coach has still not signed his formal contract with the University of Kentucky. He continues to work under a memorandum of understanding agreed to shortly after he took the job.

Asked why the coach has not inked a traditional contract, Barnhart said, "You need to ask his attorney (Stuart Campbell). That's on his attorney, not me."

Then there was the bad publicity generated by what many saw as Gillispie's condescending attitude toward ESPN sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards in halftime interviews during UK games earlier this season against Mississippi and Florida.

Barnhart says he has not discussed the public relations implications of those incidents with Gillispie.

But the UK AD points out that the Kentucky coach has allowed ESPN GameDay a behind-the-scenes look at Wildcats basketball for an all-access segment this week.

"Everybody wants to rip him for (the halftime interviews)," Barnhart said. "Well, you've got to give him credit for what he is doing now, trying to let people see our program firsthand."

Of course, a lot of the frustration that surrounds UK basketball has roots going back before Gillispie came to Lexington.

UK has not won a meaningful championship of any kind since 2005 (regular-season SEC crown). As all Kentucky fans are all too aware, the Cats haven't played on the college basketball season's final weekend since 1998.

When they showed highlights of the Comeback Cats' victory over Utah in the 1998 NCAA title game on Rupp Arena's giant video boards Saturday, a wistful crowd let out a cheer.

"We are working every day to do the things that would allow us to get back to the Final Four," Barnhart said. "It's no different than the other sports. I'd like to win an Eastern Division championship in football. I'd like our baseball team to go to the College World Series. I want our women's basketball team to go to the Final Four."

Some wonder if Barnhart, who came to Kentucky in 2002 from Oregon State without having a prior tie to the commonwealth, understands deep in his bone marrow what UK basketball means to this state.

He says he does.

"I know this program is extremely heartfelt for our fans," Barnhart said. "I came here as athletics director thinking this was a place where we could do special things in basketball. I'd like to experience it myself. I think it would be fun."

In the meantime, Barnhart says UK fans should show some patience for their still relatively new coach.

"Billy Gillispie's central focus is his desire to make basketball great again at Kentucky," Barnhart said. "I promise you, he's working extremely hard to make it happen."