The Day Billy Gillispie's Honeymoon Died at Kentucky

Henry NicholsCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2009

It’s raining beer bottles in Lexington.

Or at least that’s the weather that greeted Kentucky coach/god Billy Clyde Gillispie near the tunnel exiting Rupp Arena, where his Wildcats dropped a 90-85 decision on Wednesday night. To Georgia.

That’s right—the all-time winningest program in college basketball (until North Carolina takes their mantle in the next five years), which was supposed to start making strides under the Bluegrass’ anointed savior, lost at home to the worst team in the Southeastern Conference. Who are coached by an interim guy. Who’ve lost 13 of their last 15. In one of the worst years in recent SEC memory. On Senior Night.

Yes, the storied program that led the SEC East through January has now lost seven of its last 10 and four of its last five games. Things are unraveling quickly in Big Blue country, and public opinion, for the first time in his time leading UK, has finally turned on Gillispie, once now if not for all.

Yeah, this is the same guy who lost to Gardner-Webb, an Atlantic Sun afterthought, during his first year at the helm. Who lost his first game this year in a 111-103 decision to VMI. Who has gotten owned by Louisville since his arrival. Who lost by 41 points to Vanderbilt last year (an outcome that could’ve been even worse).

And yet, most dyed-in-the-wool denizens of the Rupp Rafters (either the actual upper deck or the forum) didn’t begrudge him these losses. Why? Three words: Orlando “Tubby” Smith.

The same coach who won a national championship in his first year at the helm (1998) became the most reviled coach in ‘Cat Country since at least Eddie Sutton. Why? Because he didn’t win more national championships. In fact, but to every true Blue’s chagrin, he didn’t even reach another Final Four! You expect fans of the winningest program in college basketball to savor Elite Eights??!

More than any other nail in the coffin, though, was the fact that Tubby’s recruiting kept tapering off. His last-gasp heralded recruiting class came in 2004, when he picked up three five-star players in Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris, and Rajon Rondo, a nice Western Kentucky transfer in Patrick Sparks, and another eventual star in Ramel Bradley.

While this recruiting class bought Tubby a grace period with fans, its overall ineffectiveness (at least immediately) to produce big-time wins eventually sealed Smith’s exile route to Minnesota. Rondo left after two successful-but-star-crossed years for the NBA Lottery, Morris left for the pros before his junior year was even complete, and Crawford and Bradley stuck around long enough to help Billy Clyde turn it around at the end of Year One.

Ironically, Gillispie’s two seasons thus far have almost been mirror opposites of each other. After losing five of his first nine inaugural games at the helm and two of his first three SEC games last season, the Wildcats won 11 of their next 13 games to clinch a 12-4 SEC record, a SEC No. 2 seed, and a bye in the SEC Tournament. Seniors Crawford and Bradley were on fire for the ‘Cats before losing in the NCAA first round to Marquette.

Going into this season, super soph forward Patrick Patterson was regarded as one of the front-runners for SEC Player of the Year. Instead, that distinction has gone to junior guard Jodie Meeks, who has been on a tear unlike anything Kentucky has seen in recent years. Meeks leads the SEC in scoring at a 25.1 ppg clip, including a program-record 54 points against Tennessee Jan. 13. Patterson has also chipped in 18.6 ppg.

But just as the second half of last season made up for a tawdry first half, this season’s second half has seemingly negated any good they felt earlier in the season, when it looked like Kentucky was once again primed for elite program consideration. Teams have seemed to progressively solve Meeks down the stretch, and the ‘Cats have slid further and further into the lower echelon of the conference in what was already regarded as a terrible year for the SEC.

What’s worse: Gillispie’s in-game judgment may have cost Kentucky what was otherwise an outcome completely within their control. In response to two quick Georgia baskets coming out of the halftime gates, Gillispie benched his entire starting rotation (outside of workmanlike PG Michael Porter), a motivational ploy that quickly backfired into a 10-0 Georgia run and which ultimately cost UK the game—and gave UK coaches a new weather forecast.

Now, with the loss to Georgia, it looks like the Kitties might miss the NCAA Tournament altogether for the first time since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn played for the Red Wings. Think the Rupp scalpers have pulled up their cojones enough to start selling tickets to the Not Invited Tournament?

And while Gillispie is 37-24 since his arrival, with the right side of that column increasing at a debilitating rate for Big Blue faithful, Tubby Smith is 41-22 at his new, relatively Arctic digs, and is still waiting to bear the fruits of his touted 2008 recruiting haul. Oh, and he is much closer to an NCAA Tournament than the former.

As far as Kentucky recruiting, the good news can't trickle in fast enough. Though UK will allegedly land five-stars Daniel Orton and Jon Hood next season, the speculation of at least one of either Meeks or Patterson leaving has plenty of merit. How long will it take Billy Clyde to field a cohesive team that he is comfortable with?

Still, Kentucky fans, for as much unwarranted grief as they piled upon Smith, are equally as reticent to condemn Gillispie after collectively, unofficially awarding him the title of “Savior of UK Basketball and Protector of the Winningest Program Status.”

When Gillispie came to Lexington, his moxie seemed to come along with images of more antiquated-looking banners on the walls, and he himself looks like a character out of the Texas Western-championing Glory Road—straight from old-school UK hoops.

It may provide some solace to Kentucky fans that their coach seems to take these losses as hard as anyone. Billy G. proclaimed at his introductory presser that he embraced challenges that came along with the stature of a program like Kentucky’s, and his public mantra hasn’t wavered in the face of disappointment and redneck rain.

"A lot of folks seem to be having really good games against us," Gillispie said after Wednesday's loss. "There is one stat that matters, and that's winning. Period. Throw all the other ones out. None of that stuff means anything to me."

And he’d better mean it, too. Because Kentucky fans have been awfully patient with him; some might say they have even been in denial. But when the die-hard sect of fans finally can’t stomach the accumulating loss column any more, they will turn on Gillispie with a vengeance.


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