I am not a respected sports columnist. Dick Weiss is a respected sports columnist. He gets paid to know sports; I get paid for something else entirely. I'm well aware of my place, who I am, and that I don't know everything about sports.
But I can't be the only person who feels like Mr. Weiss's latest column is just... off. Some of his remarks seem on the mark. Other remarks seem to be focused on old or missing data. And those of us who've been so (obsessively!) focused on the Wildcats this year, it doesn't seem like Mr. Weiss is talking about our current Wildcats at all.
After the jump, I break down what seems wrong with his column. (Bring a lunch; its a novella!)
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
Part of the problem, according to Mr. Weiss, is that Billy succeeded in the small quiet college basketball venues. But now at Kentucky, he's barely treading water in a sea of blue. (Go on, groan.) Mr. Weiss cites some examples of other small-time coaches who flamed out on the big basketball stage:
He certainly seemed happier in College Station, where Big 12 football is always the big news and basketball is a pleasant diversion until the spring game. We're still not sure Gillispie understands or apprecates the magnitude of the position at UK. ...
He's not the first coach to leap before he has looked and put himself in unfriendly, unfamiliar waters. Gary Waters, a Midwesterner in every sense of the word who was successful at Kent State, did not have the expected success at Rutgers. Waters is now back in the Midwest at Cleveland State, where his team is in the upper echelon of the Horizon Conference.
Bob Hill was more disastrous in his run at Fordham, having only coached in the NBA. He never realized the league did not have an expansion franchise in the Bronx.
We don't know what went on at outposts like UTEP and A&M, where Gillispie performed miracles away from prying eyes.
("Gillispie understands or apprecates the magnitude of the position at UK" is a direct cut-and-paste from the current article [here's a screen grab]. Whoever is doing copy editing at FoxSports.com needs to start right-clicking the red underlined words. I point this out for humor's sake, not in the standard "OMG HE CAN"T SPELL HE B DUM!!!!" Internet Flame Attack. I don't dare judge; when I type, I have more red lines than a peppermint candy.)
Yeah, some small-time coaches go big and flame out. Some don't. Off the top of my head, I present a counter-example in Ben Howland. After leading tiny Northern Arizona University to the NCAA 1st round, he was hired away by Pittsburgh. Considering Pittsburgh's lack of basketball pedigree (one Final 4 appearance) compared to its football history (4 consensus championship titles), I consider it comparable but not equal to Texas A&M's situation. Howland won several Big East Championships and got Pittsburgh to the NCAA Sweet 16 twice before moving to the big time national program of UCLA. Under the big-program pressure, he has done very well, recruiting top talent and getting to the NCAA Final 4 in back-to-back seasons.
We don't know what went on at outposts like NAU and Pittsburgh, where Howland performed miracles away from prying eyes. Whatever he did translated at UCLA as well. Howland didn't have a good time his first year at UCLA either, going 11-17.
Regardless of my counter-example, I say the that the data on Coach Gillispie is currently inconclusive. It will take time for Gillispie to set up his system. Away from prying eyes, Gillispie went 6-24 his first year at UTEP. If Kentucky only had 6 wins this year, we'd be hiding in the shadows. (Go on, groan again. That one was a stretch.)
(Howland is probably not the best example of someone who succeeded in a small-time and a big-time program. I'll openly admit that comparing Pittsburgh's athletic situation to Texas A&M's is probably faulty. But I bet there are coaches who fit the standard made by Mr. Weiss in the column. Since I'm lazy, I'll use my professor voice to say, "it stands as an exercise to the reader.")
Do You Like Billy? Circle Y or N
Though painting in broad strokes, I think Weiss gives a good overview about us "obsessive" Wildcat Basketball fans. But even here, his perceptions of the relationship between Coach Gillispie and the fanbase is not quite right:
Kentucky fans want their coach to be clean, charismatic, energetic and somewhat scientific. They want their coach to be all things to all people at all times. He must be as reverent about tradition as a boy in Cooperstown, as knowledgable as John Wooden and as charismatic as Brother Jimmy or Elmer Gantry. They want pedigree, not the Marlboro man. They perceive their program to be the finest and they want to see the finest.
Unlike "Hoosiers,'' there is no need to reinvent the wheel at this storied SEC program. You just manage the talent, you don't practice two hours on game day, don't start walk-ons, don't distance yourself from the powerful and the most passionate fans in the country and don't tell the Big Blue nation this is the way we did it at Texas A&M.
There is an ongoing "feeling out" period between coach and fanbase. Billy's methods are new to us, and its taking us while to understand why he does what he does. Remember when Billy said he doesn't like running the zone? It was like telling some of us that the ball was a cube. But I don't think there is any sort of divide between the all-knowing-about-basketball fanbase of UK and its coach. At least, not the kind of divide implied by Weiss' "this is the way we did it at Texas A&M" statement. If there was, there would be a louder backlash against Coach Gillispie than there is currently.
There are always going to be those fans who can LAZ-E-BOY coach better than the Coach. I remember a call-in show with Pitino back in 1996. The caller slammed Pitino for allowing Scott Padgett to play so many minutes, because Padgett didn't act like he wanted to play. I don't remember the particular game, but I do remember Kentucky won by over 20 points. Kentucky fans being a little crazy about basketball is to be expected.
I do think Weiss is right that Gillispie didn't expect the public expectations of the job to be so concentrated. The impression I have of Billy is that he does not like working the media. Even to this day, Billy looks uncomfortable in front of a camera, especially on his own weekly show. He sits very rigid, flashes that nervous smile when he speaks, and his face deadpans when Rob Bromley is speaking. If he's really having fun, he's not communicating that in non-verbal ways on the show. He may grow more comfortable in the media, but I think it would be unfair to ask him to be a Grand Marshall like Pitino.
So we may not get Brother Jimmy or Elmer Gantry from Coach. But he has not distanced himself from the fanbase as Weiss asserts. As far as I know, he hasn't canceled a public appearance, stopped his radio and TV shows, or denied a post-game press interview. When confronting the fanbase directly on his radio show directly after the Vandy blowout, he didn't dodge questions or double-speak. He answered each question politely, disagreeing with some of the remarks made by the callers. (When one caller asked him to be more like Coach Bobby Knight, then asked Billy to play more zone defense, Billy playfully feigned confusion because Coach Knight never played zone D.)
When will then be now? Soon.
Look, I don't blame Mr. Weiss for thinking the same team that showed up in Nashville is the same team that lost to Gardner-Webb, Houston, etc. And Mr. Weiss clearly notes that there has been a change in the middle of a season:
To be fair, Gillispie didn't inherit championship material. He privately told friends that 6-8 freshman Patrick Patterson -- one of the 10 best players in his class nationally -- is the only player who could have started for him at A&M. And we believe it. Kentucky has talented but selfish guards and little, if any, frontcourt depth. But Gillispie is not the first person to inherit a less-than-stocked shelf here. A coach worthy of a $2 million salary should be capable of doing more with less the way Pitino did when he arrived in the quagmire of a huge scandal.
To Gillispie's credit, the 'Cats appeared to be making progress, beating Vanderbilt and Tennessee at Rupp and playing Florida to overtime in a road loss. They had won five straight, played better defense, and straightened out their rotation before Vandy sent them spiraling back to earth.
But before we went spiraling down to earth, what did Billy change? Those "selfish guards" stick out. Anybody who has been following the Wildcats closely have seen the great change in our senior guards. Ramel Bradley especially deserves praise for working so hard to become Billy's lead guard. During the Auburn game, it was clear that the lead guard position is tough to replace, as Michael Porter, Derrick Jasper and Joe Crawford took turns trying to run it.
Speaking of Joe, there has been a remarkable improvement in his scoring decisions. The Old Joe that would pound the ball outside the circle then drive wildly into the lane was replaced with a New Joe that played more within the system and began passing on the drive. Old Joe showed up in Nashville -- trying to carry the Wildcats on his shoulders, like last year -- so I don't blame Weiss for thinking that he hasn't changed. But I can testify that Joe and Ramel have been born again hard.
But Weiss missed the biggest factors of this season -- the injuries and youth. We all know what a major difference Derrick Jasper makes in our team. He adds better on-ball defensive pressure, rebounding and ball-handling experience, and he's still rusty. Additionally, there has been remarkable improvement in Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson since the beginning of the year.
Given that we have (by Mr. Weiss' passed-on assessment) only one player worthy of starting for Billy, I'd say that we'd had no business beating Tennessee anywhere, Vandy (at Rupp), or most of the other SEC games we've won. Sounds like Gillspie is earning that $2 million paycheck this year.
As it is, I think Billy and the Big Blue Nation are ready to make the Vandy game -- and that old struggling team -- the distant past. Prepare to Fast-Forward!
Gee, Fake Gimel, care to add anything else to make this novella sized?
I'll openly admit I may be drinking the Big Billy Blue Kool-Aid. The last 9 games have shown a different breed of Wildcat; a breed strong enough to perform without any further relapses & win games we're not supposed to win. No games more important than the 3 or 4 games in the Georgia Dome.
But I don't think I'm completely off my rocker here. Just because Coach Gillispie came from Texas A&M doesn't mean his methods won't work at Kentucky. Just because there's been an adjustment period between coach, players and fans doesn't mean we've turned against the coach. Just because our team looks like the old hapless snake-bitten Wildcats at Vandy doesn't mean the previous 8 games by the new hard-working Wildcats are completely discounted.
Maybe Mr. Weiss knows something I don't. I'm not a respected sports columnist. But Mr. Weiss's column just doesn't seem like he's writing about the same Wildcats I've seen. And that's a shame. I think he'd like the Wildcats that I've seen. I want to believe in them. I really do.
Update [2008-2-17 0:16:15 by TheFakeGimelMartinez]: My friends at LogeLevel.com made a really funny photoshop. You have to see it.