Why So Many Will Never Understand What Kentucky Needs in Its Next Coach

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Why So Many Will Never Understand What Kentucky Needs in Its Next Coach
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Many people are now writing on who should be the next basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

John Calipari, coach at Memphis and former coach at UMass is mentioned.

Billy Donovan, Florida coach, was apparently coveted, but says he is not leaving the sunshine.

Tom Izzo, taking Michigan State to the final four for the fifth time in eleven years, is whispered about.

Crazy Dick Vitale even suggested Robert Montgomery Knight would be the perfect fit.

But none of these people have stopped to consider the factors that should really be taken into account before deciding on the next Kentucky coach.

The factors that were not considered two years ago when Billy Gillispie was chosen.

The factors that Billy Gillispie could never have dreamed of because he had grown up in the southwest rather than in Kentucky.

In fact, those who were not born and reared in the Bluegrass or who have not lived there for most of their lives could not possibly understand what factors should be considered.

The fact that University President Mike Todd and AD Mitch Barnhart are turning to a former player and person long associated with the program, Mike Pratt, to assist in formulating a plan for hiring the right person should shed some light on the factors to be considered.

Kentucky is the winningest program in college basketball.

Kentucky is second only to UCLA in National Championships.

Kentucky holds more conference titles and conference tournament titles than any other school in the country.

Kentucky has an arena that seats in excess of 22,000 fans and it is filled for every single game and has been for years.

But none of those things alone can explain what has to be considered as they look to hire the next coach.

You have to understand that the University of Kentucky is absolutely the biggest thing in the state.

There is nothing with which you can compare the basketball program.

Those who think that somehow having the University of Louisville 64 miles down the road and that they now have former UK coach, Rick Pitino, and they are once again a powerhouse somehow impacts the UK program, just don't understand.

UofL will never compete with UK in the state of Kentucky.

UofL unquestionably has the better team now and probably will have for the foreseeable future.

UofL unquestionably has the better coach over anyone UK has had in the past twenty years or will have in the foreseeable future.

But UofL will never be UK in Kentucky.

UofL will never compete for the attention of the vast majority of fans in Kentucky.

When you leave the Metro Louisville area and about five counties that surround it, you can't really get anyone to get very excited about UofL.

But in the other 114 counties in Kentucky, the basketball program in Lexington is a religion.

UK basketball in the other 114 counties from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky that border Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, to the flat counties of the Purchase Area that rest on the Mississippi River Plain, basketball is all their really is.

From time to time, some sitting around the courthouses will talk politics. But Kentucky politics are so corrupt and so laughable that no one pays attention to it for very long.

About once every 20 years there will be a crusade to improve education in a state that always is among the worst five states in the country when it comes to education.

About once every half century someone from a major news network will bring a "salvation tour" to the poorer parts of this state to show how big a heart they have and to make promises they can't possibly keep to people who never asked for them.

But year in and year out, week in and week out, day in and day out, the only thing that is a constant for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is their basketball team.

When you look at the four teams who are going to Detroit this week to compete for a national title, you must consider some things.

Connecticut is very close to New York City and there are multiple professional teams and multiple other college teams to follow in that area. UConn has their rabid fans but people there actually have some other things to think about.

Michigan State is part of a state that also has several pro teams and a number of other sports to be considered. Not being from Michigan, this writer is not qualified to form a solid opinion, but it would seem obvious on the surface that Big Ten football, including Michigan State and Michigan will always be bigger than the basketball programs.

Villanova is also from a major metropolitan area where pro teams and numerous other college programs vie for attention.

North Carolina has as rich a basketball tradition as any college has ever had. But it competes with Duke, North Carolina State, and numerous other college basketball programs for the attention of the fans of that state.

And again, in North Carolina you have professional teams that attract a great deal of media and fan attention. And there is also a little thing called NASCAR.

But in Kentucky, there are no pro teams. Cincinnati is about 75 miles up I-75, but if you live in the state, you may root for the Reds, but you don't live and die with the Reds.

We've already dissected UofL here and again, if you are not within the confines of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, you really can't understand that UofL is truly insignificant to most Kentuckians.

In fact, there were many of us yesterday who were delighted to see Michigan State beat Quick Rick and his red clad charges.

Lexington is a very small city. It is a beautiful town. Keeneland race track is there and incredible horse farms. You can follow the Bourbon Trail and see where fine whiskey is made.

But there are no great cultural attractions. We don't have Broadway in the Bluegrass.  We don't really have great historical centers although there are many, many beautiful areas for tourists to come and see.

But Kentuckians think first and foremost about their basketball team and that has always been and will always be the University of Kentucky only.

From the reign of Rupp, the legendary basketball coach who brought four national titles to the state, University of Kentucky basketball has been the top of the mountain for the people of this state.

From the time they are born, kids are indoctrinated in the legends of Kentucky basketball.

School kids grow up knowing the names of Lou Groza, Dan Issel, Jimmy Dan Connor, Cotton Nash, Louie Dampier, Rex Chapman the way baseball fans know Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle.

Shopping centers are empty on Saturday afternoons and Tuesday evenings when the Big Blue is playing. People stay home from church if the team plays on Wednesday night or leave church early if there is a noon game played on Sunday.

UK does not need John Calipari. It does not need Jay Wright or Tom Izzo or Tom Barnes.

UK needs a coach who understands that he will be the figurehead for something that is much bigger than he is, something that is much bigger than the University, much bigger than the city of Lexington.

UK needs a coach who understands what it means to grow up wanting to wear the blue and white of UK.

UK needs a coach who knows how people feel when the Wildcats drop an overtime game to Tennessee or lose on a last second shot at Bloomington.

UK needs a coach who has seen tens of thousands of fans crowding an airport fence to welcome a successful team back in the middle of the night.

UK needs a coach who will truly understand that an entire state rises and falls with the imperious whims of a basketball game.

UK has two potential prospects who met those criteria.

There are two coaches now working at the Division One level of the NCAA who were born and reared in Kentucky.

These two lived their young lives wanting to pound a basketball down the floor in Rupp Arena.

These two lived their dream of putting on the blue and white, even though neither one of them was wanted at first by the coaches who commanded UK at the time.

Both of them managed to make their way onto the team at UK and to become leaders of their teams and legends to the myriad fans in this state.

Travis Ford was not recruited at UK and first went to Missouri before transferring to UK and becoming the point guard.

Ford has coached at UMass and now coaches Oklahoma State. He has proven he has what it takes to coach at Division One.

John Pelphry was too slow and could not jump and Eddie Sutton did not want him at UK. But he got a spot on the team.

Sutton was banished in a recruiting scandal that left UK on probation and Rick Pitino came to lead the school from shame to fame.

Pelphry, who still couldn't jump or run, was one of the few players that stayed at UK as some left for the pros and others transferred to schools where they thought their chance at NCAA tournament action was better.

But Pelphry joined fellow Kentuckians Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and Sean Woods to become the Unforgettables.

After coming off probation when they could not appear on television and could not play in the NCAA tournament, the Unforgettables were joined by Jamal Mashburn and led UK back to glory.

After losing to Duke in the East Regional in 1992, UK returnd to the Final Four in 1993 and won national titles in 1996 and 1998. A loss in the championship game in 1997 prevented a Three-Peat.

Pelphry joined Billy Donovan to coach at Marshall and at Florida before becoming a head coach himself.

Pelphry now coaches at Arkansas, proving that he can coach at the SEC level.

Most importantly Ford and Pelphry have the heritage, the heart, the desire that can only come from spending most of your life wanting to play basketball for UK.

They are unique among qualified coaches and President Todd and AD Barnhart should consider their unique qualifications very seriously before they make this ultimate decision.

It is obvious they did not consider these factors two years ago when they chose Gillispie.

But perhaps Barnhart does not have what it takes to understand this either. After all, Mitch is the guy who made the incredible decision to stop the singing of "My Old Kentucky" home before home basketball games.

He just doesn't get it.

But if he and everybody else involved in the decision to hire the new coach at UK don't understand that this basketball program is the biggest thing in the state of Kentucky and they have to have someone who truly appreciates that, they will miss the mark again.

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