Is Jerry Tipton the Dread Pirate Roberts?

There has been quite a controversy brewing in the last few days here in the Big Blue Nation over a couple of interviews that Marc Maggard of Kentucky Ink did with the parents of two of Kentucky's youngest and most recent verbal commitments -- Vinny Zollo and Michael Avery (Note:  The Howard Avery interview is about 30 minutes long, and the relevant part does not appear until near the end).  In these interviews, Maggard asked the mother of Zollo and the father of Avery to talk about the interviews Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader had with them, among many other things.  Their answers created a firestorm of criticism and invective directed at Tipton and the Lexington Herald-Leader that have set the on-line blogs and message boards ablaze.

At this point, I think it is fair to warn you, Dear Reader, that this is going to be a long piece, essentially an essay.  I am going to carefully examine this issue, and if you don't have the time to read it, stop now.  Still here?  Good.  Here we go:

The facts of the case, as best I can glean them from Maggard's website, his interviews with Avery and Zollo's parents, and reading the numerous threads about the subject are these:

  1. Jerry Tipton interviewed the parents of Zollo and Avery about their commitments to UK.  In them, he asked the usual questions about why committing so early, why Kentucky, etc.  The sort of stuff that one would figure newspaper reporters would normally ask.
  2. In addition to 1 above, Tipton apparently asked both parents (and we do not know the wording of these questions) something along the lines of,  "Are you concerned about the fact that Gillispie is considered to be arrogant and hard to play for?" and asked Avery something along the lines of, "There have been injuries at UK that some have attributed to the more difficult and numerous practices Gillispie holds, does that concern you?"
  3. Tipton allegedly mentioned or asked a question to Zollo's mother about "rumors" surrounding the coach, apparently including his two earlier arrests for suspicion of DUI.  This allegation is a bit fuzzy in the recorded record, but Marc Maggard has insisted that Zollo's mother was more candid with him off the record about this subject, and even included an intimation that Lexington was a bad place to live.
  4. Mr. Avery explicitly denied that Tipton ever mentioned any drinking or womanizing rumors, or discussed Lexington's suitability.
  5. Both parents suggested that potentially negative aspects of Coach Gillispie's personality were discussed -- i.e. how "hard" he was on players, that he was arrogant, etc.
  6. Both parents stated that they were "uncomfortable" with some of Tipton's questions, ostensibly because of their perception of them as negative.  Both of the parents declined to discuss the Tipton interview in detail, citing a desire to keep most of the details private.

First of all, let me say that I am not disputing anything Maggard is saying about what he was told.  I don't know Marc, but I am familiar with his work and read his website and I think he does a fine job over at Kentucky Ink, especially when it comes to recruiting.  With that said, I must point out that Marc Maggard has made it abundantly clear that he does not like Tipton, and considers him a threat to Kentucky's recruiting.  I will have more on this point later, but the reason I mention it now is that we must accept that Maggard has chosen a side here against Tipton.  That doesn't change Marc's facts in the least, but we do have to separate the facts he presents from his conclusions.  Second, let me point out that I am not unbiased, either.  I am not a journalist, and I don't play one on the Internet.  Like Marc, I am a UK partisan, and anything that hurts UK recruiting is very much "Not OK" with me.  Keep these two things firmly in mind while reading the rest.

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, I want to examine the whole "hard and frequent practice creates injury" thing.  First of all, the medical side.  Here is a description of stress fractures from eMedicine.com:
Stress fractures are overuse injuries of bone. These fractures, which may be nascent or complete, result from repetitive subthreshold loading that, over time, exceeds the bone's intrinsic ability to repair itself. Briefhaupt originally described stress fractures in military recruits in 1855. Our present understanding of the pathophysiology of stress fractures and of bone's response to loading has been advanced by numerous studies investigating the epidemiology of stress fractures in military recruits and in athletes.
Now, we know that Tipton wrote an article on his blog about questions asked of Gillispie about whether or not his famous hard and frequent practices could be responsible, in part, for the injuries suffered by Harris, Meeks and Patterson.  Predictably, Coach Gillispie didn't think he was pushing too hard, and said that his earlier teams did not suffer stress fractures.  But consider these facts:

  1. Kentucky suffered 3 stress fractures this year, and abnormally high number.
  2. Kentucky, by acclamation of various sources, practiced much harder under Gillispie this year than last -- game day practices, "boot camp," etc.
  3. Stress fractures are caused by "overuse."
  4. Gillispie's practice habits constitute an increased load on the bones in question that had not been experienced before by the players.

Is it logical to conclude that the additional frequency and intensity of Gillispie's practice routine produced the stress fractures?  No.  Is it logical to conclude that those same practice habits may have produced, or significantly contributed to, the overuse that cumulatively resulted in stress fracture?  Absolutely.  Can you connect Michael Porter's concussion to these practices and their frequency?  No -- concussions are a part of basketball that can occur anytime -- Just ask Ramel Bradley.

So while we don't have a straight "connect the dots" cause-and-effect conclusion, we do have what is essentially strong evidence that the team may not have been as physically prepared for the additional stress as Gillispie thought, and the stress fractures may have been partially due to that increased workload.  Does this cast aspersions on Gillispie's character or his judgment?  In no way.  There is no way a reasonable person could have foreseen these injuries, and no thinking human being in Gillispie's position would knowingly risk injuries like this to his best players.  But medically, and logically, it is possible to conclude in hindsight that UK's new tougher practices could have been a contributing factor.  I encourage any medical professionals who read this blog to correct my reasoning if they see a flaw.  To me, Tipton asking this question to the two new Wildcats' parents does not seem over the top.  Tipton would be incorrect to suggest a straight-line logical conclusion that Gillispie's practices were the cause of the injuries, but it isn't at all clear from the record available to me that is what he did. 

Moving along to the suggestions by Zollo's mother that Tipton discussed "rumors" with her that were "negative," I can only say this -- If Jerry Tipton asked about Gillispie's record of previous DUI related arrests, that is fair game.  That is public record, not a rumor, and not subject to dispute.  It is also public record that Gillispie was not convicted either time, so if he mentioned the arrests without also mentioning the lack of conviction, I would consider that a problem -- as I have pointed out before, Tipton sometimes writes articles that lack balance, and in almost every case, UK's or Gillispie's mitigating factors are the "balance" that gets left out.  That could be Tipton simply being a curmudgeon and writing "defensively," i.e. he would rather be seen as a critic than a "homer," or it could be (and I don't believe this is the case) evidence of some kind of anti-UK agenda on Tipton's part.

The Herald-Leader editor Linda Austin defended Tipton in this post on the Herald-Leader's "Behind the Headlines" blog.  In it, she denied that Tipton had asked Robyn Curry (Zollo's mother) about rumors surrounding Gillispie, or commented in any way about Lexington as a place to live.  What we appear to have, therefore, is a conflict between off-the-air series of comments Marc Maggard claims Curry had with him (and I see no reason why Marc should dissemble about that) and Tipton's side of the story as related by Austin.  While it is not out of the realm of possibility that any person in this chain of events is just flat lying, what is usually the case is that there is some sort of a misunderstanding or miscommunication between the parties.  I think this is the strongest probability here.

So what are UK fans to make of all this?  Well, I don't blame Kentucky fans for being angry.  Even if we assume that Austin's defense of Tipton represents the objective facts and that much of this is a misunderstanding (which, by the way, I do), Tipton asking recruits' parents about injuries in this manner does not make me happy.  As Cat fans, we don't want to see the potential negatives of our program, especially when the connection to the facts is not indisputable, paraded in front of the people who have the most influence on where their sons or daughters matriculate. 

Marc Maggard recently said in a post on Kentucky Ink,  "I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that Tipton is UK enemy #1."  I can understand why he thinks so, even if I would demand a lot more proof of that statement than has been supplied so far, and from more than one verifiable source saying so without equivocation.  Is Tipton deliberately setting out to sabotage Kentucky's basketball program?  I don't believe so, but then again, I can't and won't attempt to prove he isn't.  If he is, he is violating every tenet of journalism I know of, and probably should be disciplined by the Herald-Leader.  If he isn't, which I believe, his questions are still a good reason for UK fans to be angry with him.  While the injury thing is out there, it is far from being a cause-and-effect slam dunk, and I can't see why it should be mentioned in questioning for an article.  In fact, Curry denied in the podcast that Tipton had asked any questions along the lines of "have you heard that Gillispie works his players to the point of injury."  With respect to the rumors, I am dismissing that as a misunderstanding -- Curry did say that Tipton asked if she had heard any rumors about Gillispie, but that other reporters had also asked her the same thing.  Avery flat out denied any questions about rumors from Tipton.  With respect to Gillispie's "hard" attitude, I suppose that is a fair question, and we should just let that pass.  Other coaches have had to endure similar, and nobody could mistake Billy Gillispie for Mother Theresa.

Kentucky fans over at Kentucky Ink and The Cats Pause have gone so far as to demand Tipton be fired, and are trying to organize a boycott of the Herald-Leader's advertisers.  Quite frankly, I think that given the facts that we have to work with, and notwithstanding Maggard's admonition that Tipton is "UK enemy #1," that is over the top.  Unless someone can provide verifiable evidence that Tipton is actively trying to sabotage UK recruiting (and folks, despite what some will tell you, what I have seen so far doesn't qualify), I see nothing professionally or ethically wrong with the questions Tipton is asking these people and the pieces he writes for the Herald-Leader.  He is certainly not endearing himself to me by doing what he is doing, but when it comes to people who's jobs are to write stories about objective facts, it is hard to justify such extreme action just because we don't like the questions they are asking -- especially when those questions relate to issues that are not rumor and not innuendo.  If Tipton legitimately believes the injury thing is an issue, I guess it is fair to ask about it, although I think the evidence supporting it is less than totally compelling.

In the final analysis, I think what we have here is a couple of things:  Tipton has been asking questions that probe issues most UK fans would not want probed.  Further, I question whether some of these issues are really solidly grounded enough in fact to be considered issues at all, but that is a judgment call that is certainly within the province of the reporter to make.  I think from listening closely to these interviews that Tipton's reputation is preceding him in at least one of them (Robyn Curry), and that makes me question whether or not some anti-Tipton bias may be responsible for some of the comments made by Curry in particular.  Curry stated in her interview that Tipton first called Zollo's high school coach, who subsequently called her and warned her Tipton was "an ass."

In the end, though, what I think we will wind up with is what we have had for a long time now -- Kentucky fans at odds with Jerry Tipton, and to some extent, the Herald-Leader.  That is nothing new.  We at A Sea of Blue have taken media types, Tipton included, to task many times and will continue to do so when circumstances warrant.  But what I have seen so far about this situation is a lot more heat than light.

Update [2008-5-8 15:17:24 by Truzenzuzex]:  Matt Jones holds forth on the Tipton controversy.  Interesting read -- don't miss it.

Update [2008-5-8 19:18:38 by Truzenzuzex]:  Fake Gimel strikes!  If you haven't read this post at Firebilly.com, drop what you are doing and get thee hence.

Update [2008-5-8 19:23:41 by Truzenzuzex]:  UK Wildcat Country has thoughts.  No shrinking violet, this guy.

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