So I was perusing The Cats Pause this morning just to check the temperature of the Big Blue Nation, and it got me to wondering -- Where do UK fans stand these days? Are we "all in" for Billy Gillispie, are we mostly united around him, or is this just a temporary quiet period before the divisions that were previously so obvious bubble up from just below the surface?
It seems like many months since Tubby Smith left and Billy Gillispie came to UK, yet it has been just about 60 days in all. But what a 60 days! In that time, Gillispie has worked at a fevered, almost maniacal pace, but mostly on just one thing -- recruiting -- which is very interesting not just because of the deficiencies we were facing in our front line next year, but what recruiting represents to our fans.
No matter what you think of Billy G., you have to give him this -- he knows exactly which buttons to push with the UK fans right now. He understood when he came here how irritated the Kentucky fan base was with Tubby Smith's Alfred E. Neuman approach to recruiting. So what does Gillispie do? He spends 60 days giving the fans the impression that recruiting isn't just one thing he does, it's all he does during the off season.
Now, no doubt this recruiting energy has earned him a great deal of good will from the restive fans critical of Smith's recruiting style. But savvy fans are also aware that Smith would likely have landed Patrick Patterson just as Gillispie did, especially given what we discovered about Patterson's thought process after the now-legendary commitment presser. But even with that, Gillispie earns bigger points with UK fans because he started out in a big hole, and overcame it. We do love a winner, especially one that overcomes long odds.
But will this recruiting energy be sufficient to overcome his relatively anemic track record? Yes, he has performed impressively at such schools as UTEP and TAMU, but it is a long way from West Texas to Lexington, and not just geographically. Billy G. has made what horse racing fans call a huge step up in class, from the allowance ranks straight into Grade I stakes company.
Most horses making that jump do not do well, and as good as Billy G. looks on paper, can he live up to it when the gate opens and he finds himself coaching against the North Carolinas, the UCLA's and other great teams every year, as well as a Southeastern Conference that has provided the national championship team the last two years? Will he move to soften the schedule, and if so, how long will UK fans and the media let him get away with it?
Gillispie's contract is filled with low-hanging fruit, and one wonders if the UMass buyout decision that garnered so much attention has more components to it than just an economic benefit for the school. And let's not forget that Gillispie is Mitch Barnhart's defining hire, much as Pitino was the defining hire of C.M. Newton's tenure. Barnhart's career at UK will undoubtedly sink or swim with Gillispie's -- if Gillispie winds up in the "glue factory", Barnhart will surely go with him.
Ultimately, I guess the big question is, "How long will the honeymoon last?" If the Wildcats stumble out of the gate next year, how long before the Legion of Doom reappears? Don't laugh -- remember how the Louisville fans turned on Rick Pitino last year, only 2 years removed from a Final Four appearance, before the Cardinals turned it all around?
If we have a high-profile transfer, or if Billy G. brings a JUCO and a relatively unknown point guard and they don't succeed, will we continue to back his recruiting decisions? I remember another coach who was big on digging for diamonds in the rough, and we all know from Smith's experience how dicey that hunt can be. How long will Gillispie get a pass?
I know, there are a lot of ifs and questions in there, and the truth is we just won't know for at least six months if we are going to go through a very rough patch, or if the transition is going to be smooth and successful, or something in-between. But Cat fans would not be honest if we didn't admit that fan anger had to be a factor in Smith's decision to leave, either by stoking Barnhart's ire, or Smith's, or both. How long will Smith's successor have to get it right?
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