Kentucky Fires Billy Gillispie

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

Impatient for a winner and a coach who embraced all the things that come with running college basketball's all-time winningest program, Kentucky fired coach Billy Gillispie on Friday.

Saying the Wildcats deserve a leader who understands "this is not just another coaching job," athletic director Mitch Barnhart and president Lee Todd made the unusual decision to dismiss Gillispie less than two years after he was hired to replace Tubby Smith.

"He's a good basketball coach," Barnhart said. "Sometimes it's just not the right fit and that's my responsibility."

It's a move Barnhart felt was necessary following a couple of turbulent seasons in which the Wildcats struggled to improve under their hard-working but sometimes aloof head coach.

Hired to rejuvenate a program after Smith bolted for Minnesota, Gillispie struggled to find any consistency on the court or off it.

Gillispie went 40-27 in two seasons with the Wildcats, including a 22-14 mark this year that tied for the second-most losses in the program's 106-year history. A stumble down the stretch left the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

Yet Gillispie's problem went beyond wins and losses.

Barnhart said rebuilding years are expected when a new coach is hired. The trouble were "philosophical differences" between the university and Gillispie on the role the school's coach plays in the fabric of a fan base that refers to itself as Big Blue Nation.

"There is a clear difference in how the rules and responsibilities of overseeing the program are viewed," Barnhart said. "It is a gap that I do not believe can be solved just by winning games. It is a philosophical disparity that I do not think can be repaired when the chemistry is just not right."

Barnhart said the university did not plan to pay Gillispie a $6 million buyout that was to be part of his seven-year deal that was never signed.

"Suffice it to say it will be less than that," Barnhart said.

Gillispie agreed to a memorandum of understanding on the day he was hired in April, 2007. A deal appeared to be a formality, but neither side could come to terms. In the end, the absence of a formal contract may have cost Gillispie a substantial buyout. Barnhart said the school would abide by the memorandum of understanding, but he considers it to be a year-to-year contract. Gillispie made $2.3 million annually.

Beyond the money, however, was Gillispie's seeming inability to ingratiate himself to the fans. He could be gruff with the media and stubbornly refused to change his coaching strategy even as the program suffered embarrassing losses to schools like Gardner-Webb and VMI.

The team continued to hold draining two-hour practices on game day, a move Gillispie said was designed to toughen the players up but sometimes left them spent at the end of close contests.

What happened on the court, however, wasn't the only problem said Todd.

"This is a complete job that requires a lot more than just coaching and recruiting," Todd said.

And it seems it won't be Florida coach Billy Donovan who replaces him.

"In response to the rumors circulating about my interest in other jobs, I wanted to address this as quickly as possible," he said in a statement. "I am committed to the University of Florida and look forward to continuing to build our program here."

Gillispie's job appeared to be in jeopardy after the Wildcats stumbled down the stretch, losing eight of their final 11 regular season games to squander a perfect 5-0 start in Southeastern Conference play. A quarterfinal loss to LSU in the SEC tournament followed, relegating Kentucky to the National Invitation Tournament.

Barnhart said the problem wasn't Gillispie's won-loss record but his seeming refusal to do the other things associated with being the head coach at the state's flagship institution.

"[Gillispie] spoke to things that were not in his job description, just about winning and losing and improving," Barnhart said. "This program is bigger than that. There's much more to it than that."

Gillispie met with players Friday afternoon but did not address reporters as he walked to a vehicle outside the player dormitories.

Gillispie appeared to sense a change could be forthcoming. When asked if he expected to be back following at season-ending loss to Notre Dame on Wednesday, Gillispie said the decision wasn't up to him.

"You're asking the wrong guy," he said. "All I know is to go to work, recruit, coach and that's what I did, that's what I've done and that's what I'll continue to do."

Gillispie arrived at Kentucky with great fanfare to replace Smith two years ago. Hundreds of supporters crowded the floor of Memorial Coliseum during a pep rally -- one with a sign that read "Billy G: Our Savior" -- following a whirlwind negotiation that was sealed in the middle of the night at Barnhart's house.

The coach who engineered turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M was heralded by one of college basketball's most ardent fan bases, who were won over by Gillispie's notorious work ethic and homespun demeanor.

Gillispie said at the time he knew what he was getting into. How could he not? The practice floor at the Joe Craft Center where he held his introductory press conference was lined with banners highlighting Kentucky's seven national titles.

"I like expectations," he said that day. "My most favorite year (at Texas A&M) was (2007) when we had pressure. And that expectation, it either drives you or it diminishes your ability, and my ability isn't diminished by expectations."

The honeymoon, however, was seemingly over before it began.

Kentucky recovered from the loss to Gardner-Webb to make the NCAAs last year. That streak ended this year after the Wildcats imploded down the stretch despite having two of the SEC's best players in Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.

The losses and Gillispie's somewhat sarcastic demeanor prevented him from connecting with some of the 20,000-plus assistant coaches who packed Rupp Arena every fall, some of whom waited anxiously next to a radio table following home games hoping to get a glimpse, a handshake or an autograph from the state's highest paid and mostly highly visible employee.

A sometimes prickly relationship with the media didn't help matters. A couple of run-ins with a female TV reporter during brief halftime interviews this year struck some as inappropriate, and Gillispie could be contentious at times.

He claimed he wasn't hired to be a celebrity, but to win games. He struggled at both, at least by Kentucky standards.


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