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Billy Gillispie is known for his ability to turn around a down-trodden program.
That is why, after just five years of head coaching experience, he managed to land one of the top six coaching positions in the country. (Personally, I would say that, in no particular order, Indiana, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and UCLA are the best six jobs in the country.)
In 2002-03, his first season as a head coach with UTEP, the Miners went just 6-24. But Gillispie brought in a stellar recruiting class, and went 24-8 in his second season, leading UTEP to the NCAA tournament.
That improvement caught the eye of Texas A&M athletic director Bryan Byrne, who hired Gillispie to fill the void left when Melvin Watkins was forced to resign following a 7-21 season. (He went 0-16 in the Big XII.)
In 2004-05, his first season in College Station, Gillispie led the Aggies to a 21-10 record and an 8-8 finish in the Big XII, the second consecutive season he orchestrated college basketball's biggest turnaround.
Despite losing Antoine Wright to the draft, the Aggies were better the next season, going 21-8, (10-6). They earned their first ranking in 25 years and their first trip to the dance since 1987. They ended up knocking off fifth-seeded Syracuse in the first round, before losing to LSU on a late three.
Things only got better in 2006-07, Gillispie's third season at A&M. The Aggies went 13-3 in the conference, finishing second behind Kansas. They were ranked in the top 10 much of the year, getting as high as sixth in the polls.
In the tournament that year, A&M reached the Sweet 16, before losing to Memphis by one. Gillispie received his second Big XII coach of the year award in three seasons.
Why am I telling you all this?
To prove a point.
As I said before, Gillispie's reputation is to come in and turn around a struggling program.
(Editor's note: Yes, UK has not missed a tournament since 1991, but this is Big Blue we are talking about—they haven't won an SEC regular season title since '05, they haven't won the SEC tournament title since '04, their last Elite 8 was in '05, and their last Final Four was in '98. That is unacceptable in Lexington. So while it is all relative, I think it is safe to say that right now, this Kentucky program is "struggling.")
Now in his second year at UK, the Wildcats still are not right.
One of their biggest issues is their wild inconsistency. Last season, UK lost to Gardner-Webb, San Diego, and Houston as they started out the season 7-9. But Gillispie rallied his troops around Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley as they won 11 of their last 13 games, finished second in the SEC at 12-4, and earned an at-large bid.
This season, UK started out with back-to-back losses, including to VMI in the opener. Gillispie looked like he had, once again, rallied his guys, this time around Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson as the Wildcats won 16 of their next 18, including an 18-point drubbing at rival Tennessee where Meeks set the UK scoring record, putting up 54 points.
But in the last month, the Wildcats have been a completely different team. They have lost six of nine, Meeks has been unable to get the clean looks he was getting earlier in the season, and the team seems to be in turmoil.
So what has happened to this Kentucky team, that as recently as two months ago was ranked in the top 25?
If you agree with former Kentucky Wildcat Mike Casey, then you probably lean toward blaming Gillispie. (If you don't know who Mike Casey is, read up here.) From an interview Casey gave to A Sea of Blue:
ASOB: Coach Gillipsie has now coached 60 games at UK. What type of job do you think he's doing so far?
Casey: First of all, I think he's in over his head. I think he has no clue as to what's going on in the game.
I just don't think he knows what it means to coach at UK. I hate to say it, but a change has to be made, and soon, or we're going to lose what UK is all about.
Ask (Richie) Farmer, or (John) Pelphrey, or (Deron) Feldhaus what it means to play at Kentucky. Ask them what that "Kentucky" across their chests means. Somehow we've let that go. If we lost we came out fightin' mad; we weren't going to lose two in a row. It's beyond me why (Mitch) Barnhart and (Lee) Todd put up with it.
ASOB: With the way the season is turning out, can you tell us what type of pressure the players are under?
Casey: They're under tremendous pressure because of the prestige...getting embarrassed on national TV. This (the South Carolina game) isn't the first time.
Casey isn't the only person who has been critical of Gillispie of late. John Stevens of Rush The Court recently wrote a column critical of Gillispie's efforts in Lexington. So did Joe Biddle of The Tennessean. (While I sense a bit of sour grapes coming from a Tennessee writer, he does make some legitimate points.)
Here is my take on the situation. Gillispie is clearly a surly guy, and if the rumors are true, he is an asshole too (things like stiffing a waiter when his meal gets comped, being obnoxious to media members, hitting on everything that walks—again, rumors, but you never really know).
Gillispie still has not signed a contract with Kentucky, and it is believed the reason is that UK requires a morals clause in every contract that he refuses to sign.
But since when is a coach required to be a nice guy?
Bobby Knight sure didn't seem like a pleasant guy to be around during his coaching tenure. Adolph Rupp is notorious, almost legendary, for being one mean son-of-a-bitch.
What about Jim Calhoun? How nice of a guy is he?
The difference is that while those three are tough and demanding, they didn't drive away players.
Derrick Jasper transferred to UNLV during the summer; Alex Legion left for Illinois after just one semester with Gillispie; DeAndre Liggins refused to re-enter a game against Kansas State in Liggins' native Las Vegas, but Gillispie played him 30 minutes the next game; and AJ Stewart quit the team on Feb. 26 after playing just three minutes against South Carolina, only to rejoin the team the next day.
That leads me to believe that all is not well in the house that Rupp built.
One of the major issues harped on, from what I've read, is the way he handles his players.
One issue recently has been Gillispie calling out Stewart and Kevin Galloway for their defense against LSU on the last play of the game. Watch it here.
I'm not sure exactly what Gillispie wanted, but judging by Stewart's (No. 15) reaction, I assume that Gillispie told them he wanted to switch every screen. The issue here is that Galloway (No. 3) never got screened. He was able to fight over the top and was never touched by Tasmin Mitchell.
So what are these players supposed to do? One player is assuming that he is switching every screen, his man goes to set a screen, so he switches. The other player never gets hit, so he doesn't switch.
I think the blame falls on both Gillispie and the players. Obviously, the players need to communicate there. Stewart, if he is switching, needs to be yelling switch loud enough for Galloway to hear him. Galloway needs to be aware enough to know that the play is for his man to run off a ball screen, and that if a screener is near, he needs to make the switch.
But it is also Gillispie's fault. Part of his job as coach is to prepare his players for any situation that may arise. Clearly, Gillispie didn't. So while he does have a right to criticize his players for not communicating, he should not be doing it in a public forum and he should also be taking some of the blame.
Regardless of how he handles his team and his players, Gillispie's biggest issue is still on the court. The Wildcats simply do not have a point guard that can play in the SEC. Liggins has not yet lived up to his potential, while Michael Porter is simply not very good.
How bad has the Wildcats' PG play been? Of the 341 teams in D1, UK turns the ball over more than 337 of them.
It is pretty easy to argue that UK really has no one outside of Meeks and Patterson.
Guys like Liggins, Darius Miller, Kevin Galloway, and Perry Stevenson have shown some promise, but none of them appear ready to play significant minutes at the high-major level. I'll give Gillispie the benefit of the doubt here, as I assume he expected Jasper to be handling the PG duties.
So should Gillispie be in the hot seat?
In a word, yes.
He is coaching at Kentucky and, like it or not, Big Blue Nation has absurdly high expectations for their Cats. Regardless of the reasons, he has yet to get the team relevant nationally. Until he does, fair or not, he will be in the hot seat.
But personally, I believe he should be given a bit of a grace period. Let him get his recruits in so he can play his system. Gillispie is a great recruiter, and has thus far landed a solid recruiting class for 2009 (two top-50 recruits thus far).
If we are still having the same discussion three years down the road, then maybe it will be time for UK to make a move.