It's official: Gillispie is no longer the Kentucky men's basketball coach. The conditional language I used may now be ignored; the rest of my feelings still hold on the matter. [Note by hooper, 03/27/09 4:30 PM EDT ]
At the time I write this, the closest thing to a confirmed report is a Louisville news station reporting that their insiders say that Gillispie will no longer be Kentucky's men's basketball coach - and a subsequent denial by UK. (Both sides are sticking to their guns, so we still know nothing.) What is certainly true, though, it that the possibility of Gillispie's termination is very, very real. That means that, after two years and a $4 million dollar buyout, the Wildcats would be starting over yet again with a new coach. Rumormongering out of the Commonwealth is naming all the "hot" names like Donovan, Calipari, Ford, Pelphrey, etc. That's natural; any program that sees themselves as a historical power always looks to the biggest fish first. We did the same thing last fall for a different sport.
At any rate, the prospect of this early departure scares me.
I'm not at all worried about the actual basketball games between Kentucky and Tennessee. Assuming that Gillispie is indeed out (and I'm going to write under this assumption for the rest of this article), even if we knew who the successor was, it'd be too early to surmise the impact the change would have in the SEC East. UK was getting great recruits under Gillispie and would have been a dangerous team; there's no reason to believe that it would be substantially different under a new hire.
What scares me about the whole thing is the level of unrest in basketball fanbases in the SEC this year. Much of the Kentucky faithful are drawing daggers. Florida's Donovan has complained about unrealistic fan expectations (what? you can't win the NCAA tournament every year?), as has Pearl (what? the best four consecutive years in program history aren't good enough?). Last year, LSU got rid of Brady for perceived underachieving, and now Arkansas is showing signs of malcontent in their program. All of this unhappiness is coming from the "top" programs in the league (with no disrespect to Vandy and MSU). Those who are having the most success are the most dissatisfied and the most demanding for more.
It's not just griping on chatboards and at watercoolers, either. That kind of complaint is ignorable; it happens at every program and is just part of being a fan. It's the tumultuous attendance and drop in revenues that is coupled with the complaints that are problems. Like Fulmer at UT, no coach can survive dramatic revenue losses combined with discontent and apathy. (Oddly enough, UK fans aren't even apathetic and aren't staying home. This is happening because the Kentucky AD fears apathy in the future.) The margin for error is rapidly shrinking across the entire conference, as fans at all of the aforementioned schools are beginning to leave (or have left) seats empty.
As if all of these coaches can magically will the team to win championships every single year.
In the SEC East alone, you have Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt routinely competing for the division title - and South Carolina appears to be entering the fray. In a perfectly socialist distribution of wealth, each program would win the East once every 5 years. And that's just the division In the entire SEC, add LSU, MSU and Arkansas as teams with fanbases that believe they should be in contention. That's a total of eight programs who want the SEC regular season and tournament titles. Again, playing the socialism game, a fair distribution would allow each school to win one title or the other every four years - but not both.
But we know that socialist theory wouldn't work in competitive sports. Who'd pay to see a guaranteed outcome? So instead, there's variation. And variation means that some of those programs will win a few more than their "fair share" over a period of time, while others will experience a dearth of "success". They can't all win, and some schools will not see a championship for as many as 10 years at a time if all of these schools feel they should be the top dog.
So Gillispie gets the axe after two years?
Let's look at something else: why was Gillispie brought in? The short answer is that Tubby was fired and a vacancy needed to be filled.
- Tubby's dismissal was primarily on the grounds that he didn't bring in the talent needed to win (though he did a great job coaching what he had). If we simply accept that at face value (and avoid a distracting argument), then Gillipsie came into a program that lacked the talent to win.
- After his first year, Gillispie had his first true recruiting class. (He did snag Patterson and Legion in his first offseason, but it was an incomplete class. I'll call it a half class, which is about right when you consider Patterson's contirubtion and that Legion left for Illinois.) That class entered Kentucky as freshmen this last year. Next year, if Gillispie were to be retained, then approximately half of the team would be his recruits - and underclassmen at that.
You have to look at both facts together. Even next year, you're looking at only 2 true classes under Gillispie while the rest of the team is comprised of veteran leadership of - Smith's "untalented" recruits. The very justification for firing Smith suddenly is a nonfactor in the performance of the Wildcats under Gillispie. It's a microwave mentality, where problems magically disappear if you just rub the right ointment onto them without taking the time to fix the underlying problems.
How It All Matters To Us
Tennessee fans are no different from Kentucky fans in this. Coming off the best 4-year streak in UT men's basketball history, there is some mild-yet-noticeable apathy from the fanbase. Attendance sagged throughout conference play - even before the early losses were on the books. Pearl has mentioned the decline in support several times, and it's worth listening to.
It strikes to a very tense conflict in the role of fans and coaches for a collegiate sports program. On the one hand, the fans foot the bill for the program through attendance, merchandise, and the passed-down costs of sponsorships. Sports are expensive, and the fans who pay good money expect the best product they can get. On the other hand, these are not pro sports. The athletes get stipends and scholarships, which is argued by some as a form of payment, but they also have the classroom and off-court responsibilities of students and university representatives. It's not fair to them to call their scholarships compensation for sports, when they're so heavily restricted in terms of sport hours and usually fill the rest of their week with the academic workload. And coaches stand astride the two positions - having to satisfy both the paying fanbases and having to guide the players to athletic and academic success.
The wins and losses are not what fans should focus on when trying to decide if their coaches are good enough. One team must win, the other must lose. Within the context of all the restrictions by the NCAA, even the best teams will have down weeks and may fail for reason outside their coachs' abilities to control. Each fan should ask themselves these questions about their coach:
- Are they running a clean program?
- Are they doing everything they can to run a competitive program?
- Do they have the potential to coach a team to the level the school can afford to pursue?
- Do they represent the school and the program well?
If all of those questions are honestly answered "yes", then you really need to find compelling evidence to justify the firing of a coach. I suspect that question (3) is the one that Kentucky is using to release Gillispie, but we've already seen that it's not entirely fair to hold him to the standards of Rupp's teams when he's not working with "adequate talent".
When I ask myself those questions of Bruce Pearl, I answer: yes, yes, yes and YES.
It's one thing to hold high expectations; you almost never achieve a higher goal than the one you set for yourself, so reach for the moon. But show a little appreciation along the way. If all we do is demand more and we never say thanks, then we don't deserve what we'll end up losing.
And if Pearl decided to leave for a place like Arizona, I couldn't blame him. There are much higher profile programs out there that might show interest in him, and such a move would be similar to Saban leaving Michigan State for LSU (remember that Saban wasn't the Evil One back then). I dont think he'll leave Tennessee so long as he thinks the team is being supported and appreciated - things we can do even if we're critical of the progress of the team.