Kentucky Basketball: Fisking John Clay

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First of all, a disclaimer.  I like John Clay.  I consider him a friend, even though that word may unfairly flatter a relationship built on only a couple of emails.  At least, I don't consider him an enemy or an inhabitant of the "Dark Side."  I see John as a good journalist and a sharp sports intellect.

Nevertheless, I have to take on John's most recent column.  I am doing that because I don't agree with him, and I don't think he is being fair.  In fact, I think he is being patently unfair -- he seems screedy and writing very much like a jilted UK fan, and that's something I never expected to say about John.

In this column, John tries to make the case that Billy Gillispie is hopelessly and even irresponsibly parochial, almost to the point of bigotry.  That is not the language John uses, but his column invites us to reach exactly this conclusion.

Since I have called this a "Fisiking," which by Internet tradition is a point-by-point refutation, this may seem a bit tedious.  But if you will bear with me, I think the payoff may be worth it.  So we begin:

Billy Gillispie isn't going to change.

It's not his way. The Kentucky basketball coach isn't going to play a zone defense, or stop his game-day practices, or adhere to normal substitution patterns. He has his principles and he's not backing down. He's not that kind of guy. His stubbornness is not so much his strength as it is his DNA. He's a bulldog, a fighter. He's right in his view and he's not giving in.

Problem is, his view is too narrow.

This is a remarkable and powerful picture he paints of Gillispie.  While it may be true that Gillispie won't play zone, won't stop his game day practices or adhere to "normal substitution patterns" (Clay invites the reader to provide his own definition of "normal," or assumes it's so obvious it needs no further exposition), it is far from certain that he won't change anything meaningful.

Gillispie has definitely changed the way he coaches between his time Texas A&M and Kentucky.  His substitutions were not seen as abnormal at TAMU, and neither were his game-day practices, which other good coaches also use.  But to hear Clay tell it, Gillispie has been doing the same thing in the same way for the last seven or eight years, and won't listen to any sort of reason.

Another thing that flies in the face of reality in this piece is the fact that Gillispie's substitution patterns in the SEC tournament made perfect sense.  Maybe not to John Clay, but they certainly made sense to me, and I think, to most people in the Big Blue Nation.  So why have they been so eccentric before then?  I don't know.  But suggesting that the coach is dogmatically tied to some strange and crackpot philosophy to the point of self-destruction does not seem to be borne out by his actions in the SEC tournament.  Maybe I'm wrong to see this as change.  But maybe not.

For this job it is, anyway. Gillispie got it wrong Thursday when he told the media Kentucky was no different than any other basketball job. "Not to me," he said.

Did Gillispie really get it wrong?  Is John Clay really telling everyone that the principles that have served Gillispie so well, the principles that got him this job at UK, are now just too provincial to be applied successfully at Kentucky?  Is it just me, or does Clay seem to be saying, "Forget what made you successful, coach.  This is Kentucky.  We do it the Rick Pitino or Tubby Smith way around here."  Since when?  Whatever happened to the rest of Kentucky history?  Was not the most successful Kentucky coach in history, one Adolph Rupp, an eccentric, "My way or the highway" kind of guy?  Sure he was.  Maybe Clay has just forgotten, never knew, or wants to forget.

Yes, Kentucky fans want a coach who wins, but they also want a coach who does the other things, the little things, who represents the program and the state the way it should be represented.

Really?  You mean the little things like what Gillispie did at Dance Blue last year?  Little things like that?  Pitino schmoozes with fans, and talks sweet to the press.  Gillispie gives money to help pediatric cancer, and helps strange women pay for a trip to their father's funeral after a phone call to a radio station.  But all that was so ... last year.

Pitino, on the other hand, was and is a smooth-talker, a favorite of the press because he is glib and a person after their own heart, as concerned with image as the holier-than-thous in the press think a coach should be.  In short, he is the apotheosis of the punditry, and Gillispie is the red-headed stepchild, suffering by comparison every single time he goes in front of the camera or the press.  Gillispie is easy to dislike because he is blunt, and he tells the truth.  He is not glib, he is not facile.  He is awkward and  honest and sarcastic, and he doesn't much care for things that distract him from his objective -- finding ways to win basketball games.

The rest of John's article is more of the same, essentially excoriating Gillispie for not being suave or glib like Rick Pitino or gentlemanly like Tubby Smith -- basically, saying that Gillispie is not good enough, not smooth enough, not witty enough, not ... open minded enough to be the Kentucky coach. Then he tells us that Gillsipie won't ever change.  Billy G.'s not right for Kentucky.  That's the message.  That's the conclusion.  And he tells us, as though we somehow can't figure it out for ourselves, that we are all tired of Gillispie.  We want Pitino, Smith, anybody -- not this ... Texas bumpkin.  The scorn fairly drips off the pixels.

I'm sorry, John.  We part ways on this one.  I think Coach Gillispie will learn from his mistakes, and will improve his management of Kentucky basketball.  It's interesting how nobody was making these types of observations last year when the coach was winning co-SEC Coach of the Year.  Nobody was making these kinds of observations because the team finished the year strong.  Winning cures most ills, it seems -- even illnesses concocted by columnists.

I know many of you are going to ask, "Why are you so passionately defending this guy, Tru?  You blasted him for buying out UMass last year.  You have consistently pointed out his coaching flaws.  You said from day one that he might be too inexperienced to be coach at Kentucky.  You even said a lot of what John Clay has just said.  Why not just bury the guy?  He's easy to dislike."  That's a fair question, and here is my answer:

I will always fight for a good person who is doing nothing more than being who he is, who we knew he was, and who he was expected to be.  We knew who Gillispie was when we hired him.  We all cheered him.  We all worshiped at the altar of Billy Gillispie in spite of his known shortcomings.  Now, after two years, some of us want to deny him a reasonable opportunity to accomplish the goals we brought him in to achieve because he is too parochial,  too inflexible, too arrogant, too rough around the edges for our taste.  Those same characteristics that used to be a good thing are now nothing more than harbingers of trouble to come.   When the team falls on hard times, we decide it is time to kick a good man to the curb because he is rude to Jeannine Edwards, or short with Tom Leach.  We decide his style just isn't pretty enough for us, his media presence just too gauche.  The difference between the hero of last year and the goat of this year is, maybe, five or six losses.

All I can say, Big Blue Nation, is that it's time to look in the mirror.  What some will see there is a reflection of John's vision of us -- elitist, insatiable, vicious, unforgiving, unrelenting.  Freddy Krueger in Blue and White.  I'm sure the next great NCAA coach just can't wait to get here to Elm Street.

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