Kentucky Basketball: The Roaring Silence


As has been the case since the 2008-09 version of the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament, speculation about Billy Gillispie's future is running rampant throughout the Big Blue Nation.  Traffic at Kentucky blogs and websites is at an all-time high judging from our traffic and recent comments over at Kentucky Sports Radio, and I expect the biggest reason for this is the uncertain future of the Kentucky basketball coach.

Of course, what we have now is only rumor and innuendo, but the problem is that the rumor and innuendo is coming not just from the predictable places, but from places that appear to be unusually close to the UK program.  That does not in any way validate rumor as fact, and of course, we don't repeat rumors here on A Sea of Blue.  Instead, we will examine the landscape of Kentucky basketball and speculate on some possible scenarios.

It's very difficult to sort through all the static and figure out exactly what is going on.  Here is what we know for sure:

  1. Mitch Barnhart has made various public comments, all alluding to concern about the state of the program and where it is headed, but none pointed enough to indicate that Gillispie is about to be dismissed at the earliest available opportunity.

  2. Mitch Barnhart has stated that he will meet with Gillispie after the season to discuss his performance, just like he does every year.

  3. Journalists throughout the Commonwealth who are well-connected are getting very negative indications from their sources as to Gillispie's retention.  Dick Gabriel is the latest and most celebrated, but there have been numerous others that are getting substantially the same feedback.

  4. National journalists of repute (not just Seth Davis) are getting negative feedback from their sources at UK about Gillispie's future with the program.

  5. The basketball team has put on a united front in support of Gillispie, even at least one player who many presume to be headed elsewhere after the season.

  6. Kentucky has obtained a verbal commitment from a new recruit to the 2009 class.  It seems fairly unlikely that commitment would come if the recruit were not reassured about Gillispie's job security, at least for the coming year.  Now, I point out that this is not a straight-line logical conclusion, it is merely another reasonable supposition that could, in fact, be wrong.

  7. Gillispie has a six million dollar "buyout" in his contract.  Many people think this is chump change to the UKAA, but it is not.  In fact, given the state of the economy and the fact that many donors are tapped out due to losses suffered by the markets, it may represent more money that UK can rationally afford at this point in time.

  8. Mitch Barnhart could dismiss all this distracting talk with the wave of his proverbial hand.  He has chosen not to do so.

There have been many reasons posited justifying Gillispie's departure from a mass mutiny and departure of half the team to just about any other thing you can imagine.  None of these "justifying" rumors have even the smallest hint of actual reality, at least not so far, but they are there.

Barnhart's failure to stop all this rumor-mongering, which he cannot fail to be aware of and cannot fail to know is a serious distraction to the coach and the team is the crux of this particular biscuit.  Back during the furor surrounding Tubby Smith, Barnhart gave Smith the deadly "vote of confidence" fairly early in the process.  As we all know, when we hear the "vote of confidence" from the AD during stormy times like this, it invariably ratchets up the perception that the coach is about to be fired.  It's just one of those weird, counterintuitive things about the coaching carousel that, in this case, inures to Gillispie's favor.

But at the same time, Barnhart is clearly doing nothing whatever, back-channel or otherwise, to silence the rumor mill.  He is either:

  • Allowing the rumors to run rampant as an informed decision, or;
  • Actually stimulating the rumors by leaving insiders with the impression Gillispie is in deep trouble.

We can't know anything for sure, but here are the possibilities as I see them:

  1. Barnhart does not know if he is going to fire Gillispie or not.  He may truly be waiting on that meeting to determine whether, in his mind, the coach has a reasonable probability of success if he stays.  That is not a simple evaluation by any means.  Yes, Gillispie gets help next year, but can he be trusted to operate cleanly and competently under the crushing pressure that he will be under in the next 12 months? 

    If I were Barnhart, I would be very concerned about this point and would want to have a comfort level with the coach that he can handle it.  The internecine media bloodbath now is a decent crucible in which to observe Gillispie's behavior, as it will be nothing next to the pressure he suffers in the run up to next year.

  2. Barnhart hasn't ruled out firing Gillsipie and is not predisposed to do so, but does not want to make the same mistake he made with Tubby Smith.  The damning "vote of confidence" in the Smith case brought a hail of criticism down on Barnhart from all quarters of the sports media, both in Kentucky and outside, and Smith made him look like a petulant fool in the end.  He clearly learned from that, and is willing to let Gillsipe squirm rather than put himself in that position again.

  3. Barnhart wants Gillispie gone, and is using the rumor mill to pressure him into resigning or negotiating a settlement far under the current six million dollar figure.  If this is Barnhart's plan, it is unlikely to work.  If Gillispie were to sniff this out as Barnhart's plan, I predict Barnhart will be in a very bad place when it comes to negotiating any settlement.

  4. Barnhart has raised or can raise the money and is committed to firing Gillsipe as soon as the season is over.  If this is the case, there is no need for him to say a word and he is making the coach sweat it out from pure malice.

Myself, I see #1 and #2 as most likely, but that's just me, and I am forced to include the caveat that I am a noted optimist and supporter of Gillispie in the instant case.  That support could collapse if Gillispie does something reprehensible or stupid, but absent that, it will be there.  I don't know Barnhart well enough to judge the likelihood of any of these probabilities with anything approaching confidence, but I do assume that he has the best interests of Kentucky (or at least, himself) at heart.  I see great personal risk for Barnhart in firing Gillispie after only two years with the fan base so divided.  Without a defensibly mutual parting of the ways, the fans could fracture, Barnhart could lose support within the UK administration and he could join his subordinate in the unemployment line.

On the other hand, if Barnhart gives Gillispie one more year and Gillispie succeeds only moderately, the situation at this point next year may not be much improved.  Kentucky fans have exhausted most of their reflexive good will toward Gillispie, and are now demanding performance.  A deep tournament run next year would do wonders for him, but he really needs several consecutive years to recover his lost reservoir of good will.  Is that even possible?  I'm not sure.

In the end, I suppose, we will know when we know.  At this point, it is difficult to trust even the mainstream media, because it is clear that there are high placed sources at UK that are speculating just as much as everyone else.  One thing I believe is that unless the unexpected happens and we wind up with a team that includes both Patterson and Meeks next year, Gillispie will be facing a daunting challenge.  With just one of the two, he can probably do enough next year to save his job for year four, but will it be worth saving?  I can't see that far into the future.

We are living in interesting times, and it is every bit the curse the Chinese thought it was.

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