College Basketball’s Toughest Job
Despite writing about NCAA basketball for close to two years now, Billy Gillispie’s name has been typed on my keyboard all of one time. It was a passing mention of the Kentucky head basketball coach, in reference to a player who’d transferred out of the program in the fall of 2007.
The fact that the coach of the winningest program in college basketball history was only mentioned once on the site speaks volumes to where Kentucky basketball is, and has been since Gillispie took over two seasons ago. They are an afterthought nationally, and now locally as the Louisville Cardinals have made a run to the Elite Eight.
It is that indifference both by myself, and from everyone that covers college basketball which led to Gillispie’s firing on Friday afternoon.
His Kentucky teams just didn’t matter, at a place where basketball is all that matters.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the firing was best for both parties.
Gillispie proved to be a bit of an introvert, at a place where every move is scrutinized. He was standoffish with the media, something that’s acceptable when you’re winning 30 times a year, but not when you’re a mid-level SEC team.
He lost too many head-scratching games (Gardner-Webb last year, VMI to open this season) and struggled down the stretch in 2009, finishing the regular season just 3-6, after starting 16-5.
You can survive stretches like that at UTEP and Texas A & M (Gillispie’s previous two head coaching stops), but not in Lexington, where anything short of a Final Four run is considered a disappointing year.
Not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years of course is downright unspeakable.
So Kentucky cut the cord, figuring if they didn’t this year, they would next (barring an absolutely shocking turnaround). Gillispie is on the unemployment line, and the Wildcats are searching for a new hardwood head man, for the second time in three off-seasons.
As with any head coaching search at a major program, you’re going to hear all the big names.
Florida head coach Billy Donovan has already come out and said he has no interest in the job. It is probably for best, as Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart likely would have taken at least a little heat for bringing in a coach that is coming off back-to-back NIT appearances. Even if they were on the heels of consecutive National Championships.
The next big name is Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Well, there is a possibility that after going to four Final Four’s in the last decade, and being on the brink of another that he might be getting bored in East Lansing.
But he is also a Michigan guy, born there, and started his coaching career in his early 20’s at a state high school. He was also an assistant at MSU before getting the head coaching gig, so it seems unlikely that Izzo retire anything but a Spartan.
What about Pitt’s Jamie Dixon? The problem with this is Dixon has never coached a McDonald’s All-American in all his years at Pitt, choosing instead to develop lower rated recruits into stars by their junior and senior years.
While this may work at Pitt, I doubt the fans in Lexington will be comfortable watching their players develop at a snails pace. That is what did in Gillispie’s predecessor Tubby Smith. He won an awful lot of games, but never seemed to have the superstars needed to win games late in the tournament.
As for Rick Pitino, I’m sorry UK fans, but he’s not riding in on his white horse, and in his all white suit to save the day.
So with all those names out, who’s left?
As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one man that Barnhart needs to call, and when he makes that call, needs to refuse to take no as answer.
That man: John Calipari.
Calipari is everything that Kentucky and their fans want. And he’s everything they need, if they’re serious about getting back to college basketball’s elite.
At the end of the day, what was the biggest problem with Gillipsie? Yes, he was aloof, but again none of that would matter if he won more games. Calipari recently won 30 games for the fourth consecutive year. Not too shabby considering no coach in the history of the sport has done that.
And before Gillispie, what did in Tubby Smith?
Well, there were a few factors, the primary one being that he didn’t win enough tournament games. Calipari has been to the Sweet 16 four times in the last four years, the Elite Eight twice in that time and played for a National Championship in 2008.
But beyond that, Calipari would bring some cache that the Big Blue faithful are desperately missing.
For one, there is no one better at selling his program than Calipari. He did it at UMass, and has continued his “us against the world,” mentality in Memphis.
This year, when his team was battling for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament down the stretch, there was Calipari on every television show, radio network and street corner preaching that his team deserved it. You couldn’t turn on your TV without seeing Calipari’s face.
Most importantly though, Calipari will bring the superstar players that Kentucky really hasn’t gotten since Pitino was roaming the sidelines in Lexington in the mid-1990’s.
Meanwhile, in that same time guys like Shawne Williams, Derrick Rose and very likely Tyreke Evans have come to play Calipari and in one year, come out NBA ready. Before them, Calipari successfully got players like Amare Stoudemire and Kendrick Perkins to commit to Memphis, and would have played there, but weren’t required at the time to go to college before starting their NBA careers.
And despite the constant exodus of top players, more blue chippers continue to commit.
This year Calipari has already signed Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins, two of the top three players in the high school class of 2009 according to recruiting website Rivals.com.
Calipari has made Memphis the destination for the one and done superstars looking to come to college, improve their game, and then move on to the next level. And at the end of the day, superstars are what win you NCAA Tournament games, and more importantly National Championships.
Now, here’s the most important question: Would Calipari ever leave Memphis?
It seems like every year, some school makes an overture at the coach, including the spring of 2006 when he seriously considered leaving for NC State. He decided to stay, but lets be honest NC State isn’t Kentucky. The whole state revolves around Wildcats basketball, and Calipari could get whatever he wanted in terms of salary and facility upgrades.
Also, at some point, doesn’t Calipari have to get bored by the lack of competition in Conference USA? Memphis hasn’t lost an intra-conference game in three years, and doesn’t appear to be letting up any time soon.
And for a guy as competitive as Calipari, doesn’t that seem a little boring?
Because as much as he relishes the underdog role in Memphis, the competitor in him must get a little disinterested once January comes, and he can pretty much hit cruise control until Selection Sunday.
Other than a few big games early in the season, Memphis simply isn’t challenged the remainder of the year.
So as the tournament winds down, we’ll learn a lot more about Kentucky’s plans for their basketball future.
What direction they will go? I have no idea.
But Barnhart needs to start by getting on a plane to Memphis with a blank check in hand, and not leaving until Calipari’s signature is on it.
Because in Kentucky there’s only one thing that counts: winning basketball games.
And no one does it better than John Calipari.