I have been talking to a lot of Wildcat fans lately, both on the blog, and of course around the holiday party circuit. A couple of recurring themes have prompted me to write this post, and I think it bears discussion.
First of all, some ground rules. This isn't about Tubby Smith, and I don't want it to become about him. Those want to talk about Smith, don't do it in here. I totally understand that a number of UK fans are bitter at Smith for leaving us with less talent than we need to beat the North Carolinas and Indianas of the world, and I will not argue that is not the case. Those who are invested in this view may consider this a capitulation to the argument that our talent is certainly not top ten and perhaps not even top 20 quality. But let's let Tubby sit on the sidelines for the nonce.
Moving on to the first issue I want to discuss -- next-yearism. I have been reading and listening to fans, and more than 50% of the time, I hear variations on this: "I'm waiting till next year when we will have a more talented team." Waiting? Waiting for what? To cheer for the Wildcats? To watch them? To wear Kentucky colors or identify yourself as a Wildcat fan? To defend the team? What?
Make no mistake, my Big Blue brothers and sisters, I sympathize with the emotion behind this argument. Over the last three years, it has been progressively less and less enjoyable to be a Wildcat fan because of the mounting losses and negative press that our poor play has generated. We are used to supporting a team that is always in the national conversation, and now, we are often the subject of "what ever happened to UK?" articles and talk. It's frustrating, and I have seen a small but growing number of fans give up on Kentucky, and tell me just that in no uncertain terms.
Americans love winners and don't like losers, and that is a well-known fact. It's tough when fans of a program that has been as successful as UK has historically been are forced to live in the new reality that currently confronts us -- three straight years of irrelevance. Never mind how we got here, it is not germane to the discussion. We cannot change the past, and we cannot summon the future. We are living in what Rick Pitino used to describe as the "precious present," only it doesn't feel so precious to many of us. In fact, there are a good number of fans now who do not remember the up and down Joe B. Hall years, or the frustrations of Eddie Sutton's tenure here. Many of today's Wildcat fans grew up during the heady days of the Rick Pitino era, and when we experience that kind of uninterrupted success without the context of past frustration, these last three years can be very hard to take.
Now, I'm not going to talk about "true" Kentucky fans -- that's the kind of rhetorical device that people use when they won't brook any dissent to their point of view. What I will say is that the soul of a fan is revealed during adversity. The love of anything is always put to the test during tough times, and folks who talk about "next year" obsessively are attempting to live in hope and escape the painful present. We should all hope for better, but we must live in the now, and I say, we must not sacrifice this team on the altar of an unknown and unknowable tomorrow. I refuse to abandon this team, and it is my hope that we can all discontinue our anxious wait for next year and live and die with what we have. The fact that we may face a good bit more dying than living is the challenge of every sports fan, and it is an honest part of the pure fan experience. "We can't win them all" may be trite and shopworn, but it also has the virtue of being inarguably true.
So I urge my Brother and Sisters in Blue to eschew "next-yearism" -- we cannot invoke "next year" from here. Live in the "precious present." It hurts like heck right now, but in my experience, it makes the inevitable return to glory all the sweeter. Remember how much those teams that came after probation meant to us? But we surely also remember how every Cat fan couldn't wait to see that unfortunate 1988 team struggle, but never surrender. I know do. I watched every game I could, even when Kansas massacred them in Allen Fieldhouse and Roy Williams ran up the score. But Kansas never did win a national championship under Ol' Roy, and the fact that Kentucky won two before he won his first with another team will forever be a blemish on his career.
The second thing I want to discuss is the idea that Billie Gillispie is off-limits for critical discussion. Nobody should be calling for Gillispie's job, no matter what happens. In fact, I will never do so, barring some kind of moral turpitude -- I trust the university Athletic Administration to handle his employment 100%. I have criticized the coaching of every coach who has ever been at Kentucky, including the Baron himself. It is my right as a knowledgeable Kentucky fan. I want Gillispie to succeed, and I am confident he will. But his success or failure will not depend on fan analysis of his coaching, and can surely survive even the penetrating brilliance of my commentary (kidding!).
Some people have seriously suggested to me that I aught to be doing everything possible to deflect criticism of Gillispie, "for the good of the program." I surely hope a program as ancient and storied as ours can withstand critical comments about the coach's coaching (personal stuff is off limits on this blog unless it is reported by a reliable media source). Critical comments don't mean calling the man a bad coach, or suggesting he can never deliver us to the promised land -- that is simply hyperbole driven by frustration. If we stick to honest observation, fans can be critical without being destructive.
In fact, we have an obligation to look at our entire coaching staff honestly, and if criticism is warranted, it should be given if we think it necessary -- but with reasoning and supportable facts or at least, opinions grounded in a reasonable basis. "Gillispie sux" isn't an argument, and neither is "You're wrong!" We owe it to ourselves, our fellow Sea of Blue members and Wildcat fans everywhere to explain our criticism and our disagreement, and when necessary, agree do disagree. But to hide our heads in the sand and ignore what is before us is not, in my opinion, what committed fans do. We have all heard about the difference between constructive and destructive criticism, and constructive criticism is called that for a reason.
In summary, if we all keep ourselves hopeful but grounded in the present, unafraid to tell what we see as the truth but honest enough to know that we could be mistaken, and true to to the team to which we have all invested our emotions and fan support not only in success but also in trying times, we fans will be worthy of the famous admonition by the late great Al Maguire regarding Kentucky tradition: "They had it before you, they had it during you, they'll have it when you're gone."