Moderation and The Fringe

One of the principal reasons I started this blog, and its predecessor on Blogspot, was to give voice to the thoughtful Kentucky contingent I was sure was out there lurking silently, reading and posting reasoned accounts of truth to fanaticism in the era of the Great Tubby Debate.

For the most part, my experiment has been a rousing success. Today this community boasts the most intellectually vibrant and consistently reasoned debate within the Big Blue Nation, and it's not even close. This heartens me, and I thank the stars that I stuck it out when times were tough (and when Tru was the only one responding to my drivel).

But in the last few days, I have been struck by the responses I have seen to the ongoing Gillispie debacle. I have seen more than a few commenters talking about the Athletic Director and school President as if they were leading the pitchfork-wielding mob toward the castle, Memorandum of Understanding aflame atop their red-fire torches.

The gist of the disagreement was that the Kentucky program was being unreasonable, that it was an embarrasing situation that, as fans of the program, and therefore of the coach, was an affront to those who saw the fringe taking the helm.

But times are very different now, and the Coach in the crosshairs now is neither the same as the one before, nor comparable in most ways. Tubby Smith was a victim as much of time and circumstance as anything. Ten years is an eternity anymore for a college coach in one locale, especially one as fervent as Lexington. And even Tubby has since admitted that it was time for a change. In some ways, for many of us UK "moderates," the Tubby Smith Debate was humbling. We lost, insomuch as there were winners and losers. And yet, in retrospect, while we kept our dignity, we may have been holding on too tightly to something that was approaching its fateful end. The Tubby energized in his coaching and recruiting up North is not the same guy who was trudging to work each day in 2006-2007.

We were trying, however nobly, to stem to tide of what we saw as a dangerous encroachment of true fanaticism into our beloved Wildcat Nation. It was as if, for a while, the Ron Paul crew had the inside track and it was we who would suffer. Things didn't work out exactly that way -- Tubby was already ready for his move, having looked into it as early as the December before -- and he was rewarded, rightly, for his overall good work on his way out door. The fringe claimed victory, but really it was just the forward momentum of things that won out in the end.

Now, though, I am not convinced that moderation is the answer. Big Blue Nation is again facing a crisis, but this time one with very visible differences.

It is entirely reasonable to say that two years is not enough time to accurately judge the coaching success of a new coach. From recruiting to establishing a new atmosphere, any coach usually deserves more time to make his mark. But there are greater things at play here, this time around, than simply coaching the game of basketball, and I'm not referring to the rumors, innuendo and outright lies of "off the court" shenanigans.

Billy Clyde Gillispie is what he is. He admitted as much last night, in a call-in radio show that displayed a very chastened Kentucky coach.

"I'm a hard-core guy," Gillispie said during his radio show on Thursday night. "I'm a very, very honest guy. Sometimes that comes across great. Sometimes it doesn't."

Whether the outside world wants to accept it or not, the Kentucky basketball coach is indeed a position greater than the sum of its parts. Part coach, part idol, part object of derision and scorn, for right and wrong the position is one that requires an outsized personality and a rare combination of skills. Adolph Rupp set the standard, Joe B. Hall found his stride, Eddie Sutton wilted, Rick Pitino thrived and Tubby Smith endured. But Gillispie has bristled, bent under the weight of giant expectations. There exists a very real chance that he is, quite simply, not up to the overall job of being the leader of the program. This doesn't make him a bad person, a loser, or some sort of martyr. It just makes him a man ill-suited to a particular place and time.

But these are very real parts of the job, parts that Gillispie steadfastly (and stubbornly) maintained he was not obligated to fulfill, much to the surprise, I am guessing, of his bosses.

As the Herald-Leader reported three weeks ago just before the SEC tournament, when a reporter suggested that the UK basketball coach has greater public responsibilities than just coaching, Gillispie responded:

"That wasn't on the job description. ...You can be as public as you want to be and not win enough games. ... It makes no difference.

"You start trying to be a celebrity ... you definitely are going to lose focus. That's just not going to be a very good solution to the problem."

While the coach has a point on winning games, he remains steadfastly wrong if he thinks that somehow he can avoid those other parts of the job.

Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story penned a good piece today about the reality of the non-basketball factors leading up to this moment. Among his comments, Story noted that the national media -- which seemingly loves to stick the knife in a little deeper on UK than it does on similarly blue-blood programs -- will inevitably write the "win-at-all-costs" story, perpetuating the myth it still believes and promulgates about Tubby Smith being "forced out" (to the tune of over a million dollars in a bonus honored, it should be noted...):

Which is why, my national media colleagues, if UK is about to make a coaching change, there's more going on here than just hoops-crazy Kentucky and its win-at-all-costs mentality.

All of this is not to say that keeping Gillispie would be a mistake. I think given the personnel set to return and arrive next season, things would look much rosier this offseason than each of the last two.

But if the man sometimes referred to simply as Clyde still believes that media savvy is not part of his job description, or that representing the school in many small and distracting ways is not going to be a major part of his life for as long as he is coach -- wins or no -- then what will have changed except his overall win-loss total? What would continuing with a man who refuses to accept the undeniable elements of his position truly set the program, the university and the man himself up for except eventual collapse?

As a fan very adamant (and outspoken) in my belief that Kentucky fans are, however loyal and true, often wrong-headed in their overzealous nature, I often cringe at the fringe as they make their petitions and sell their motto-emblazoned mesh novelty hats. But there comes a time when moderation for moderation's sake is simply trying to play nice, and potentially being wishful and even naive in the face of clear evidence.

I am reminded, as I often am, of a famous quote, and one which I generally disagree with, but which seems oddly applicable, or at least educational at this time.

"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Those were the words of Barry Goldwater accepting the Republican nomination opposite Lyndon Johnson in 1964 in advance of an election that would come to be one of the largest blowouts in electoral history. And yet, he and his supporters eventually shaped the face of modern politics from that ash heap, culminating in the Reagan revolution.

Ignoring the political debate entirely, are we, the Big Blue Nation, now faced with a situation where moderation in pursuit of protecting an embattled man is no virtue?

And if we choose extremism, and change coaches, do we stand the chance of suffering the inevitable round boo-ing from the punditry and even our more cautious selves, but with the chance to shape a new destiny?

Question abound. And answers are forever the domain of history.

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