Gillispie Fired at Kentucky: Don't Blame Big Blue's Fans

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Gillispie Fired at Kentucky: Don't Blame Big Blue's Fans
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Kentucky basketball certainly has its detractors these days. The dismissal of coach Billy Gillispie is bringing many of them out of the proverbial woodwork.

"Spoiled" and "impossible to please" are among the refrain of the same, tired song that was most recently worn out describing UK fans when Tubby Smith left the program two years ago to become the Gopher-in-charge at Minnesota. In spite of what you may have heard, Smith was not run out of town by crazed fans and threats of being fired by the university.

Smith was, and still is, one of the best college basketball coaches in the nation. That distinction is recognized by more Wildcat fans than some of the program's naysayers would have one believe.

He delivered the school's seventh national championship, as well as multiple conference regular season and tournament championships.

With a winning percentage hovering around .800, Tubby had taken his 'Cats into the Elite Eight as recently as 2005, before losing a Final Four appearance against Michigan State in a bitterly fought, overtime contest.

He had even delivered an undefeated run through the SEC regular and post-season. A feat not duplicated by even his wildly successful predecessor, Rick Pitino.

Smith knew he was appreciated by most reasonable Kentucky fans. Indeed, the team's attendance figures never dipped, even in his last two seasons. 

Remember, those were seasons in which he accumulated some 25 losses and got hit with the not-so-nice "10-loss Tubby" moniker on radio call-in shows. Those seasons combined with Kentucky's longest span without a Final Four appearance had the boo birds out.

Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart was forced to publicly declare his support for the coach. Barnhart did acknowledge that Smith was expected to improve upon his team's record and recent recruiting shortfalls and most had no doubt he would do so.

However, as is often the case, the fans complaining about Smith generally grew more attention than his supporters and in the media, if nowhere else, Tubby's seat grew hotter.

Kentucky, like any other athletic program, has among its fan base a number of people who can be classified as unrealistic and yes, fanatical.

With the rich tradition of success, UK arguably has even more of those fans than most. Tubby knew he could stay, perhaps make some staff changes, bring in some stud recruits and certainly right the ship.

He also knew that he'd captained the ship for a decade and with his record, he could just as easily sail another ship with little, if any of the stresses he endured in the bright, hot lights of the Kentucky position.

In the end, Smith chose the latter option and really, who could blame him? He was surely seeing visions of Aretha Franklin belting out "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."

He had certainly proven to everyone that he could win on college basketball's biggest stage. Why not jump off of that stage and leave those pressures for someone else looking for an opportunity to coach one of college basketball's blue bloods?

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, they were about to be hit with a double whammy. Not only were many upset to lose such a great coach and blamed UK's athletic director for not being able to keep Smith, they found their names being sullied in the media for running him off.

Most didn't feel that the criticism was fair. Some though, felt the separation was best for both, Smith and the university. 

A minority were happy to get rid of Tubby, regardless of the public relations black eye and didn't mind saying so. Again, the latter group became the focus and a brush that could easily be used to paint them, was used much more broadly to portray the fan base, as a whole.

Smith's departure is still hotly debated to this day. Barely two years later, Kentucky is again looking to fill a coaching vacancy. This time though, the circumstances couldn't possibly be more different.

Billy Clyde Gillispie, from the tiny hamlet of Graford, TX, is a man obsessed with basketball. That alone should make him a perfect fit for fans obsessed with the same. Today the Texan is likely singing his own tune.

A country song called "What Might Have Been" (surprisingly made famous by a group known as 'Little Texas') comes to mind. As that song plays, the refrain from those singing "Another One Bites The Dust" and jeering at those crazy Kentucky fans begins to grow louder. As I said before though, not this time.

Obviously, Kentucky's fans are no more happy with losses to Gardner-Webb and VMI than they are in seeing the team make it's first NIT appearance in three decades.

Most knowledgeable fans understand that no coach can be properly judged in only two years on the job. Also apparent to fans is that Gillispie is an excellent recruiter, with top-notch recruits coming in next year's class.

The program would likely take a dramatic step forward with those recruits and the returning duo of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.

No, this time the fans cannot be blamed for the coaching change. The blame this time must be shared, but not with those fans. This time, it rests solely upon the shoulders of the two men most responsible for Gillispie coming to Kentucky, Mitch Barnhart and Gillispie himself.

Many issues would have to be discussed in order for there to be a complete airing of the grievances between Barnhart and Billy Clyde.

One item that never failed to leave the Lexington limelight is the fact that Gillispie and the school could never agree to terms for a formal contract and in fact, one had never been signed.

While Gillispie attributed the abysmally failed contract negotiations to lawyers being unable to agree on legalese, the school is said to be fairly put-off by the perceived snub. If the vetting process were even half-way done, Barnhart had to know the kind of guy he was getting.

Neither Gillispie nor those who knew him could be accused of hiding any potential warts.

Gillispie's two previous arrests for DUI were mentioned in news reports and surely discussed by the coach and athletic director.

Further, the divorced coach who was infamous for being married to basketball, so much so that he made breakfast of cheese-crackers and Dr. Pepper, could hardly be blamed for changing his persona since coming to Lexington.

Gillispie had been known for not relishing formal, written contracts long before his plane touched the bluegrass.

If anything, Gillispie was so much himself that he quickly wore thin on his new bosses. Perhaps the coach was afraid this might happen.

At least one local newspaper writer has mentioned rumblings that Gillispie even looked into the possibility of reneging on the deal and returning to College Station, but was rebuffed by the Aggies, who had already hired Mark Turgeon in his stead. 

In either case, the school quickly commenced to field unflattering rumors and inquiries about the coach and his off-court conduct over the following months.

On the court, the coach certainly didn't help himself with some of the most high profile losses in Kentucky history. His coaching acumen was constantly questioned by fans and media, alike.

On more than one occasion, Gillispie flippantly rebuffed reporters with what he considered to be "bad questions," most famously during a live national broadcast on ESPN with a female sideline reporter, interviewing the coach on his way into the half-time locker room.

Gillispie's infamous boot camps, intense game-day practices, and steadfast refusal to consider playing zone defense were but three of the topics constantly brought up when the coach happened to be the topic of discussion.

Most recently, Gillispie angered the administration when he told reporters that his job didn't include anything more than coaching and recruiting, rebuffing the highly public aspect of the job and the duties that entailed.

Perhaps the most pressing concern to Gillispie's superiors was his apparent problematic relationship with his players.

The coach and All-American junior guard Jodie Meeks have had issues recently that both refuse to discuss. What is obvious is that Meeks was recently, inexplicably benched for extended periods of time.

In his last two NIT games, Meeks, who has never failed to launch shots at will, appeared to refuse to take any shots for long stretches of time. This is hardly the first evidence of Gillispie and his players not seeing eye-to-eye.

Earlier in the season, highly recruited guard DeAndre Liggins infamously refused to enter a game in Las Vegas.

In his first season at Kentucky, Gillispie dismissed one player from the team who later reported to local newspapers that the coach was extremely rude, among other personality shortcomings.

Another player, Gillispie signee Alex Legion, was unhappy with his first year under the coach and promptly transferred, opting to sit out a year of his eligibility, rather than return to play under Gillispie.

Many internet message boards dedicated to the team have been rampant with supposed news of players refusing to return next year if the coach is retained. These events alone would be hard to digest for a lot of schools, but when players' parents start to go over the coach's head and demand meetings with the athletic director, one cannot imagine anything less than problems on a large scale. 

No, the fans cannot be blamed for Billy Clyde's sudden departure. This time the Kentucky program is looking for a new coach and no one is to blame other than those in charge of the program and perhaps, the coach himself.

Surely Kentucky knew what it was getting. If it didn't, it should have. Thus, Barnhart is far from blameless.

After losing Smith and having to get rid of his own new hire after only two seasons, not to mention putting the school on the line for a possible $6 million dollar buy-out, the AD isn't likely to receive many more chances to flub the handling of Kentucky's major cash cow. The sacred cow must be treated as such and Barnhart knows this.

So the AD will be working extra hard to get it right this time. If not, he too may be singing. Perhaps something akin to Donna Lee's "I'm Sorry."

Meanwhile, Kentucky fans bearing the brunt of their fabled team's second worst season on record, also watch and listen as they are labeled with being fanatical, impatient, and unrealistic in their expectations.

They're tough enough to handle the discourse, though. They'll just keep singing, too. Singing the blues. As long as those are Kentucky blues and not that pastel, Carolina stuff.

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