UK Basketball: How Did It Come to This?

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We had no way of knowing that Kentucky’s loss to Kansas in the 2007 NCAA Tournament would be Tubby Smith’s last game as the UK head coach. What has to be a bigger shock is just the suggestion that a loss to Creighton Monday night in the National Invitation Tournament could mark the end of the Billy Gillispie era as well.

How did we get here? How did it happen?

There are as many opinions as there are portals to the internet. And nobody has all the facts. We just know what we know.

Farewell, Tubby

Tubby Smith began thinking about an exit strategy long before that spring day, when he bolted for Minnesota. In fact, he himself told me Lou Holtz had advised him to get out, back when Smith was sending top-seeded teams to the NCAA tourney, in the early 2000’s. Holtz had learned first-hand, at Notre Dame, what it was like when the cheering ebbs. Get out while you’re ahead, he counseled Tubby.

What made Smith think about a change of address in earnest was his desire to have his son, Saul, join his coaching staff. Everybody knows what kind of pressure he was under to make changes among his assistants, even after the 2004-05 season that saw him a rebound or two away from that elusive second trip to the Final Four.

Call it loyalty, call it stubbornness, Tubby dug in. But toward the end, sources tell me, he agreed to clean house (with the exception of Dave Hobbs) if he could bring Saul on board.

Trouble was, UK has an anti-nepotism policy, the same one of which former Athletics Director Larry Ivy ran afoul when his step-son, Rob Manchester, landed a graduate assistant’s job with the football team.

It’s understandable as to why Smith would want to hire his own son, who eventually did join him at Minnesota. I can relate; my own son, Jack, sometimes travels with me to sporting events to lend a hand. My daughter Kate often pitches in on the UK broadcasts at Commonwealth Stadium and Rupp Arena. I enjoy having them around, seeing as how just last week they were toddlers.

And if you read Gene Wojciechowski’s excellent piece in ESPN The Magazine a few years ago, you’d understand the special bond between Tubby and Saul. Tubby and Donna nearly lost Saul when he was very young to a medical condition requiring extensive surgery, instilling within them the fear no parent should have to experience.

Tubby also told the administration he would shake things up if he could get a contract extension (either one or two years, depending on whom you believe). With 25 losses in the past two seasons, he didn’t really have much of a chance there.

So upon hearing “No, thank you,” he became a Gopher, leaving behind a body of work that was far more impressive in the first eight than it was in the last two.

And that’s where I part company with Tubby Bashers.

Disguised Racism

They embrace the notion that the 1998 NCAA Championship was somehow tainted, or worthless, because Rick Pitino recruited most of the players. Funny, nobody ripped Roy Williams for winning a title with kids recruited by Matt Doherty.

And those same malcontents will tell you that the program has been going downhill from the day Smith was hired.

That’s where the racism buzzer goes off in my head.

And don’t kid yourself, it was there. From the season ticket cancellations the day Smith was hired to the cowardly, anonymous phone calls to the talk shows – a faction of UK “fans” made themselves clear.

That, to me, was far more disappointing than the events that led to the infamous Sports Illustrated cover, which included the headline, “Kentucky’s Shame.”

Even if you didn’t like his style of play (understandable, after the way Pitino’s teams got up and down the floor) you couldn’t argue with the results: five SEC championships, five SEC tournament titles, a single season that saw his team race undefeated through both the league and tournament (only to be done in by Dwyane Wade) and three trips to the Elite Eight.

It was the lack of another trip to the Final Four that was conspicuous by its absence. But had it happened, in ’99, ’03 or ’95, the haters would have found a way to dis that, too.

So Tubby left. And Mitch Barnhart had to find a new coach.

The Search Was On

Timing was everything in the spring of 2007. Kentucky needed a new head coach; everybody’s favorite former Wildcat assistant was busy winning a second straight national championship at Florida.

It wasn’t a poorly-kept secret; in fact, it was no secret at all: UK coveted Billy Donovan. It would have been front-page story if it hadn’t. As we all know by now, Donovan said “No, thanks” to Kentucky and settled into Gainesville. For about 15 minutes. Then he trundled off to the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

But before anyone could say “Tim Floyd,” Donovan headed back to UF, realizing college hoops really was the place for him.

Barnhart was ripped almost immediately, and in some circles has been ever since, for fumbling the negotiations with Donovan. Only here’s the rub: There never were any.

Barnhart had exactly one ( 1 ) conversation with Billy D; that was to offer him the job. It came two days after the championship game.

There had been, indeed, negotiations – informal ones, by people flying below both the UK and UF official channels. And they had agreed in principle. Both sides thought the deal was done. In fact, if you recall, the Cats’ Pause posted on the front page of its web site what turned out to be speculation on the situation, likening it to the Kentucky Derby, with the blanket of roses ready for draping.

Only, Billy D wanted The League. And Pitino had recommended he make that move. The UK AD heard Donovan’s refusal when Florida issued a statement, saying its coach was staying put.

Barnhart had to turn to column “B.”

Who Next?

Rick Barnes was on that list. Trouble was, he needed more time. His superstar freshman, Kevin Durant, had not yet informed him as to whether or not he was ready to jump to the NBA. Barnes, understandably, wanted to coach Durant again, if he had the opportunity.

But Barnhart knew there were recruits at stake, and that any delay could cost the program. According to sources, Patrick Patterson and Jai Lucas were going to announce their respective college choices together, at an all-star game. And the winner was to be Kentucky. But when Tubby left, Lucas headed for Gainesville and Patterson re-opened his recruitment.

Barnhart turned to the man who’d forged a reputation on quick-turnarounds and 24/7 recruiting – two job skills UK basketball sorely needed. He put in the call to Gillispie.

After a whirlwind courtship, Billy Clyde arrived in Lexington, to thousands of screaming fans in Memorial Coliseum. Barnhart was hailed the hero, both locally and by the national media, who proclaimed the hire a slam dunk.

This was the same Mitch Barnhart who’d been so reviled by UK fans almost since the day he stepped on campus. It seemed nothing he had done was right.

Fumbling Football

Barnhart was vilified for not “keeping” Guy Morriss as head football coach – even though he had turned Morriss’s series of one-year contracts (which he was basically force-fed by Larry Ivy and Lee Todd) into a four-year deal. Morriss tearfully told the UK Athletics Board that no one had ever shown that kind of faith in him. And Barnhart eventually provided Morriss with a schedule of raises for his assistant coaches (I actually saw a copy of it).

But for whatever reason, their relationship went sour, and GuyMo headed for Waco, getting out as overwhelming NCAA sanctions were moving in.

Barnhart set about looking for a new head football coach, a guy with a household name, and n imaginative offense – someone who could help Big Blue fans look beyond the lean years that were on the way, to a brighter day, when recruits would flock to Lexington, the footballs would be flying and the bowl bids would arrive.

That man was Norm Chow.

The hottest assistant coach in the country, Chow had been busy helping Southern California become relevant again, working with Pete Carroll, who had rejuvenated Trojan football.

Barnhart believed Chow was the answer and the two came to terms. Only, the night before Chow was to fly to Lexington, a family matter arose, forcing him to call Barnhart and back away from their agreement. He had to stay on the west coast, Chow explained.

So Barnhart was back at square one, and he set about trying to convince a coach of substance to take the what might have been the worst job in Division I football.

Every college football coach in America new the NCAA had drilled Kentucky, that a program that struggled just to be mediocre had been buried by sanctions. In the 1990’s, Texas Christian was nailed with sanctions not nearly as stringent, and it took TCU 10 years to dig out – in a state crawling with homegrown football talent.

Chow was one of five to say “no,” leaving Barnhart searching for answers. For help he turned to an old friend, Rich Brooks.

Barnhart had spent a year at the University of Oregon early in his career, and prior to coming to Kentucky, four years at Oregon State as the athletics director. He knew that in the Pacific Northwest, Brooks was revered for the job he did building the Ducks’ into a consistent Top 25 power. Back in the day, Oregon and Oregon State were to the Pacific 10 what Kentucky and Vanderbilt had been to the SEC.

You probably know by now that when Barnhart asked Brooks for suggestions, the coach said, essentially, “How about me?”

It was a decision that did not play well to a fan base that had some members convinced Steve Spurrier would come here for the right amount of money.

And then Barnhart did what his detractors will never forgive: He raised ticket prices.

Barnhart recognized the fact that the UK budget lagged woefully behind most other SEC schools – the same schools pounding Kentucky in practically every sport but basketball.

During the search for a new AD, countless callers to my radio show allowed as how the Wildcats should be able to at least compete in EVERY sport. They didn’t know, nor did I, how terribly underfunded the “minor” sports were. Some teams had only part-time assistant coaches; one team’s coach also doubled as the laundry manager.

There would be no new money coming from TV and radio, conference contracts or any other conventional sources. Ticket prices HAD to go up, whether it was Mitch Barnhart raising them, or Dan Issel, or whoever else had been in the running for the job.

Brooks’ success on the football field helped ease at least some of the criticism of Barnhart. The hiring of Gillispie looked as though it could bring actual long-term sunshine. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way.

The Tubby haters still blame the former coach, conveniently forgetting that A.) he left behind the point guard this team lacks (Derrick Jasper) and B.) Gillispie, the recruiting specialist, usually starts four players signed by Smith (plus Patterson, who was recruited by Tubby).

Gillispie did a marvelous job last year – again, with a roster full of players primarily recruited by Smith. Patterson went down with an injury, Jodie Meeks and Jasper were playing on one leg and still, the Cats won 12 of 16 SEC games in a season when the conference was much tougher than it is now. He shared Coach of the Year honors with Bruce Pearl – the fourth consecutive season he’d been named COY in one league or another.

And yet, he has banked virtually no good will from his efforts. The season has been bizarre, with the Cats tumbling from a hammerhold on the league (at 16-4, 5-0) to a berth in the lowly NIT. And Gillispie hasn’t helped himself by treating Jeannine Edwards so disrespectfully (separately, they were mild incidents. Together, a disturbing pattern). His steadfast refusal to play zone even out of a time out hasn’t won him many fans, either.

Did Barnhart move too quickly with the hire? Perhaps. Did he get bad “intelligence” on BCG? Definitely. Nobody warned him that Gillispie’s personality could set the entire athletics department on edge. Or that his negative, sarcastic tone in practice would make at least some of his players miserable.

At Texas-El Paso, as well as Texas A&M, Gillispie was a salvation. Their players were faced with the prospects of being parts of programs that had little or no hope of succeeding. And within two seasons, they both knew the joy of post-season play. His last A&M team was a dark horse for the Final Four.

At Kentucky, the Wildcats knew they were close. The NCAA Tournament was a given; they just needed a little more of what Gillispie figured to have and they would be ready to make a fun for the Final Four.

Instead, they found themselves in Omaha. Who knows what happens next.

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