So its now completely over. With his Saturday morning press conference in Lexington, the Billy Gillispie era ended for the Big Blue Nation. Its hard to know exactly how Gillispie will be noted in the grand history of UK basketball. This is a program that went nearly 45 years with two coaches and now has had 2 in three years. Of the six coaches in the modern era, 4 won national championships, one was successful before probation, and then there is Billy. In thirty years, how will we look back on the two tumultuous years the man from Texas had as head of the monster known as Kentucky basketball? We likely wont know that for some time, but what we do know is that for the second time in three years, UK will be back on the search for a new basketball coach. However this time, the search will be much different….more deliberate, less centralized and even more crucial. The Gillispie era has ended but the all-important search for his replacement has just begun.
However before we completely close the book on Gillispie, I do think it is important to recognize how we got here. No matter what Digger Phelps, Michael Wilbon or any other national talking head may say, this decision had little to do with wins and losses. This was simply the case of an individual who was not well-suited to be the basketball coach at Kentucky. While he had moderate success on the floor, off the floor he was a Matt Doherty-like disaster. He never felt comfortable doing the things it takes to succeed here and his authoritarian personality rubbed almost everyone in the wrong way. If you win at Bobby Knight in the 1970s-like levels, you can act that way….but if you win Bobby Knight in the late 1990s-like levels, you cant.
Below are the Five moments that I think led to Gillispie’s downfall. This decision to remove Billy Clyde was not a quick one….it built slowly over time, with each mistake building on the other. Over time the total conglomeration made it too difficult to retain him, and a move had to be made. There is a lot speculated about what happened and when, but in my view and from the information that I know, these were the ultimate causes:
(1): Interpersonal Relationships with Administrators, Boosters and Staff
From very early on in Gillispie’s tenure it was clear that this was a man who would do things his own way and answer to almost no one. Within his first two months on the job, it is rumored that he and Mitch Barnhart began frequently bumping heads, almost exclusively over the inability of Gillispie to accept the secondary parts of the UK job. Within his first two months, he refused various meetings with influential alumni, cancelled a 60 year tradition of the Kentucky coach speaking at the Lexington Rotary Club, refused mutiple requests to do “program building” appearances at various in-state events and generally balked at doing all things that were not basketball related. He showed from the very beginning that he was here to do one thing and one thing only, and that was coach basketball….a job description that unfortunately does not work in Lexington.
In addition, Gillispie turned off many around the UK athletics office with his attitude and style. I have spoken with numerous UK employees who talked about the tension that all felt with Gillispie in the building. Whereas most who work for UK are part of a family atmosphere, there was a sense that Gillispie was rocking the cradle on how things were done. This led to a situation in which Gillispie had very FEW supporters among influential administrators, boosters and staff. All wanted Kentucky to win, but when losses mounted, there were few willing to go to bat for an individual that they had no particular fondness for. That lack of support, which began from Gillispie’s early days here made it much easier to make a change that very few would passionately disagree with.
(2) Derrick Jasper:
It cannot be overstated the impact that the Derrick Jasper situation had on the UK program. Derrick Jasper was a player loved by his teammates and all of those around the program. Jasper is a great kid and the type of player that helps a team both on and off the court. Derrick came to Kentucky for Tubby Smith, and was skeptical of staying in Lexington when a change in leadership occurred. But Gillispie sold Derrick on the idea of being the cornerstone of the new program, and Jasper decided to stay. However from the very beginning, the marriage was doomed to failure. Derrick is a very soft-spoken, mild-mannered kid who doesnt take over criticism well (much like Jodie Meeks). Gillispie’s style of coaching, which includes tremendous criticism and pitches to a player’s manhood destroyed Jasper’s confidence and made him very uncomfortable in practice and games.
Jasper was also of course dealing with his injury that continued to linger. Derrick did not want to return to the court, but after a trainer gave the opinion that he could, Jasper found himself playing again. I have never gotten a clear story on how Jasper ended up on the court (some say Gillispie pressured him into playing, some say that Jasper felt he had to when given the clearance from the trainer), but what is clear is that Derrick regretted his decision to come back. After returning, those close to Derrick have told me that Gillispie challenged the young man a great deal on his “toughness” and if he was going to keep “letting his injury be an excuse.” The treatment turned Jasper off and he made the decision to transfer….thus taking away Kentucky’s best point guard prospect and, potentially even more importantly, a teammate that was well-liked. This team with Jasper on it is a different basketball team, but Gillispie only has himself to blame for Derrick’s departure.
(3) The Media Problems:
For a long time, Gillispie’s prickliness with the media has been known. Since early in his tenure, his decision to mock a question or belittle and individual for saying something he disagreed with (usually with a smirk on his face) was known to all that covered him. Usually he would apologize after such a comment (as he did with me), but no one in the media had a “warm and fuzzy” relationship with him. And then came what I believe was the turning point for the perception of Gillispie, the Jeanine Edwards interviews. What happened in those interviews has been dealt with ad nauseum but three things happened as a result of those interviews.
First, for the first time since Gillispie had arrived, some in the public started to wonder if their beloved coach was actually a jerk. I have heard countless people, particularly women, ask if he was like that normally and question whether that public face should be the coach of the UK basketball program. Second, many in the media thought he crossed the line and it became the cause of the day to blast Gillispie and his attitude when the losing started. Most knew Edwards as a sweet, harmless reporter and seeing her treated poorly led the media to sense blood and begin questioning his attitude at other occasions. And third, it became a direct slap in the face for the Administration. After the first Edwards interview, the administration asked Gillispie to apologize and be careful what he did in the future. He did apologize, but then one week later at the Florida game, he was once again rude, an action that my sources around UK say INFURIATED Mitch and Lee Todd. The thought went that if knowing people were watching and that he needed to be on his best behavior, he STILL couldnt be polite, what hope was there for the future?
Even after all of those Jeanine Edwards issues, Gillispie then made another mistake that older UK fans still bring up to me all the time…..he was perceived as being rude to Tom Leach. Leach, who is one of the nicest men I know, was accused by Gillispie of trying to get him to “turn on his players” just days after Gillispie threw Perry Stevenson under the bus like none other in a post game press conference. Many fans who heard that, which include a lot of the most influential and wealthy UK fans who listen to Tom on their drive home from Rupp, felt that he had crossed the line with someone they consider like family, the UK play by play announcer. Even when Leach said he took no offense (a classy move on his part), the damage was done and the reputation of Billy Gillispie as a jerk stuck for many in the Big Blue Nation. Win and be a jerk and people may forgive you….go to the NIT and be a jerk, and it is time for a change.
(4) PLAYER RELATIONSHIPS
While all of the above are very important, the most significant factor in the downfall of Billy Gillispie was his relationship with the players. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that with only a couple of exceptions, the players simply did not like their coach at all. With a group of young men who were extremely tight as a group, every slight and verbal assault on a teammate became an assault on them and over time, the players simply had no affection for the man in charge. Over the course of a season, countless acts occurred that ruined team chemistry and individual confidence. I am sure there are many more than this, but just a few that I know for certain:
— Coach told Jodie Meeks in a number of games to stop shooting and decried him for his selfishness, even during his 54 point performance in Knoxville. He told Meeks he should quit on a number of occasions and even threatened to kick him off the team in his last game ever, in South Bend during the NIT.
— At halftime of one game, he forced a player to sit in a bathroom stall with the door closed during the entire break because he said he couldnt stand to look at him.
— On more than one occasion, when a young player went into his office to ask for advice on how he could get better, he returned from the office having been berated by the coach and crying as he returned to Wildcat Lodge.
— On one road trip, a player who had been injured but was deemed to be too “soft” by the Coach was told to walk to the hotel from the arena, and only after teammates said that they would be get off the bus and walk with him, was he allowed back on.
— On another road trip, a player who felt the criticism was so strong that he locked himself in a room crying, while the team bus waited outside.
These are just a few of the countless incidents, which in total made the team a gloomy group. Some individuals could handle the criticism and some were not targeted with nearly the same amount of vigor. But the totality of the criticism piled up and led to a team that was tight, afraid to make any mistake and left with no feelings of positivity to their coach. Had Gillispie returned, it is not an exaggeration to say that six to seven players may have left….including names that UK simply could not afford to lose. While no one has ever said this to me officially, the thought of that type of mass player exodus likely would have meant another year of mediocrity or worse next year….which means Gillispie would have been in hot water AGAIN. He simply could not have survived that.
On this site, we hinted at such issues during the year, but out of respect for the players and the team still playing, did not go into detail. But the evidence was there. Remember Dusty Mills and his comments to Jerry Tipton about the way he was treated? Derrick Jasper took heat for going to UNLV and was called a host of names by UK fans for his lack of toughness. Former players who were privy to a lot of those issues such as Kenny Walker, Bobby Perry and the unnamed Jeff Goodman source were LAMBASTED on message boards for speaking out about these very issues. What that showcased to me is that while we say we want to know everything about our program, we do not want to know bad news. Mitch and Lee knew about this and much, much more I am sure. Many fans, while ignoring the info they had been given and blaming the messenger, and not knowing a great deal of the other parts of the situation, nevertheless criticized those making the call. Hopefully that will be a situation that we attempt not to repeat going forward.
(5) The Final Straw:
At the SEC Tournament, I wrote on a live blog that “Billy’s commment about not being an ambassador may be the final straw.” In hindsight, I am even more confident that was the case. After the Ole Miss game, when Billy said he had “not signed on to” be am ambassador for the program, just days after Mitch Barnhart had publically made it clear that was part of the job description….well that was lights out for Billy Clyde. I spoke with someone who was around Lee Todd when he found about this quote and said he was “beyond upset” when he heard it. For a guy who was already on the brink to express that level of cluelessness as to what this job entails….well it meant he likely had to go.
I believe this decision has been made for ten days or so and was just finalized and made public yesterday. It is a shame that it had to occur as there are parts of Gillispie’s personality, particularly his passion for the game, that could have been great here in Lexington. But at the end of the day, when your view on the program is different than the administation and when your relationship with players is as it was, it will be hard to succeed.….especially when you arent winning. Jodie Meeks came out this morning in the student newspaper and said that he respected Gillispie but that this was a “good decision.” After following this team for two years, interacting with nearly everyone involved in the program and seeing what I have seen, I think Jodie’s words are spot on. Gillispie is a good Coach and I think he will have success, but he cooked his own goose here. Kentucky needs a Coach who embraces the enormity of the program and succeeds at every facet of it, that was not Billy and the time for change had come.
With that, we will move late tonight and tomorrow to the new search…should be interesting.