— Here we go again. Kentucky is searching for a new “ambassador” and the rest of the college basketball world can only watch and wait.
If it all sounds familiar, it’s because it is. We went through this two years ago when Big Blue Nation decided Tubby Smith wasn’t getting the job done. Smith, who didn’t hang enough national championship banners to satisfy the locals, heard the footsteps and took off for Minnesota before he could be fired.
This time, Billy Gillispie stands accused of not creating the “right chemistry or fit” in his two seasons as Kentucky coach. So on Friday, Gillispie was literally chased by television cameramen as he tried to navigate the hallways of the Kentucky basketball office. As news of his firing became public, one fan called a radio talk show and led a chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
And then Kentucky officials held a news conference to announce a national search is underway to find the next leader of the Wildcats.
Apparently, this was the biggest personality conflict in the history of college basketball. That’s the company line. There was no mention of the fact that Kentucky’s streak of 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances had ended this season. Of course, if the Wildcats had found their way into the tournament, it seems unlikely any of Friday’s fuss would have been necessary.
You can’t fool us. We know it’s all about winning.
None of this came as a surprise. The heat had been building under Gillispie’s seat for weeks. As soon as Notre Dame knocked Kentucky out of the NIT, the only thing left was official confirmation of Gillispie’s departure. Speculation surrounding the next hire by athletic director Mitch Barnhart was rampant long before the announcement of Gillispie’s firing.
And it wasn’t hard to pick a favorite. Kentucky’s first choice two years ago had been Florida coach Billy Donovan, so why not start the list there again?
It was a good guess for a while. But Barnhart and Kentucky president Lee Todd were still answering questions in Lexington when Donovan released his own statement in Gainesville, Fla.
“In response to the rumors circulating about my interest in other jobs, I wanted to address this as quickly as possible,” Donovan said. “I am committed to the University of Florida and look forward to continuing to build our program here.”
Of course, the Orlando Magic might warn us all to be skeptical of statements issued by Donovan. Two years ago, the Magic thought they had Donovan all wrapped up to coach their NBA team. But he woke up the next morning and discovered he had changed his mind.
How crazy did things get Friday? An Orlando TV station aired a report that quoted a source close to the Kentucky program indicating that Donovan would be switching benches within the Southeastern Conference. And, according to the Palm Beach Post, Florida basketball spokesman Fred Demarest sent a text message to reporters before Donovan issued his statement. Demarest’s message said, “Billy will not be a candidate for any jobs that come open, I can confirm.”
Anthony Grant must believe that. Grant, a former assistant under Donovan at Florida who has been so successful at Virginia Commonwealth, was hired at Alabama Friday night.
All of that attention was heaped on Donovan two years ago after his Gators won back-to-back national championships. After the Magic released him from his NBA contract, he signed an extension with Florida that made him one of the highest-paid college coaches in the country. Maybe Donovan’s personality is perfect for Kentucky. I’m not sure how to judge that. But perhaps it is worth noting that Florida hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament the past two years.
Is that what Kentucky wants now?
Villanova’s Jay Wright and Rick Barnes of Texas were names that surfaced the last time around. Wright, who led Villanova to Saturday’s East Regional final against Pittsburgh, may be an even hotter prospect now.
But Wright rejected the idea of moving during interviews in Boston on Friday. Since Wright has built a successful program in the toughest conference in the country, has a chance to win the national championship this season, and has an excellent recruiting class coming in, there’s no reason to doubt him.
“I feel very fortunate I'm in a spot I don't have to deal with it,” Wright said of the coaching carousel. “I'm happy to be at Villanova. I don't want to be anywhere else. When someone mentions your name, you're flattered. But I don't want my name mentioned anywhere. I love Villanova. I've got a great athletic director and a great president. As long as those guys are there, I'm good.”
Wright mentioned family and all those things that Kentucky wants to hear right now. But the truth of the matter is Kentucky may not able to find that perfect guy. Not too many exist these days. If they do, they may already be happy where they are.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been mentioned. But why would a guy like Izzo, who has built a terrific program with his personal imprint, give all that up to start over at Kentucky? More money. Maybe. But is that worth it, with all the unique headaches that go along with Kentucky?
Maybe Rick Pitino would want to go back? The Kentucky fans who believe that are really dreaming. Pitino has said repeatedly how much more comfortable he is at Louisville. And asked about the Arizona opening this week, Pitino said Providence was the only job opening he considered since he was hired at Louisville in 2001.
Also linked to the Kentucky opening will be Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, a former guard who played for the Wildcats under Pitino. Ford was popular with Kentucky fans and he had great success in his first season at Oklahoma State, pulling the Cowboys together late in the season and leading them to the NCAA tournament.
In some ways, Ford would be a safe pick. He is part of the Kentucky family and could smooth things over with the boosters who felt ignored by Gillispie. Ford has enjoyed modest success at Eastern Kentucky, UMass and now Oklahoma State but Barnhart will have to decide whether that is the pedigree of the next, great Kentucky coach.
And if Ford leaves, where does that leave Oklahoma State? Perhaps big-time OSU booster T. Boone Pickens, the legendary oilman, should open up his wallet to make sure Ford goes nowhere. Pickens tried to do that with Kansas coach Bill Self, an Oklahoma State grad, last season. It didn’t work. But the Cowboys came out OK with Ford.
“Coach [Adolph] Rupp started something that is now bigger than any one person,” Barnhart said, referring to the Kentucky coaching legend who remains difficult to follow in the Bluegrass State.
And now that Kentucky is searching again, it’s obvious more than one person and more than one program will be impacted in the coming days.
Let the dominoes fall.