Every college coach, athletics director and sports program wants to make all the right decisions, all the time. Unfortunately, there are times when that just doesn't happen. We've all seen it, and we've even experienced it first hand. It's about that experience that we're going to talk now.
The premise of this post is, "What is Kentucky's biggest disaster as a member of the SEC?" I'm going to nominate several possibilities and let you vote on which one of the nominees best fits the description. Here are your candidates for consideration, and I know some fairly major events are not nominated here, but the reasons for their lack of inclusion is explained after the nominations:
The Loss of Paul "Bear" Bryant — Early 1954
After the 1953 football season, the man who would become one of the most legendary football coaches in the game, "Bear" Bryant, left the University of Kentucky for Texas A&M, and from there on to Alabama where he won or tied for 13 SEC titles and won 6 national championships.
Bryant took his leave from Kentucky due in part to the focus of the school's athletics administration on basketball, as epitomized by the infamous myth that during one football-basketball banquet, Rupp was given a four-door Cadillac and Bryant presented with a cigarette lighter.
Bryant himself claimed that he left because he was "pigheaded," and that it was a "clash of objectives" between him and Rupp over who was going to be the #1 focus of the university. When Rupp didn't retire after a scandalous 1952 basketball season, Bryant decided that the school wasn't big enough for both of them. With that said, there is little doubt that UK didn't do enough to keep him, and probably could have found a way if they hadn't decided to hang their hat on the basketball program.
The Hiring of Billy Gillispie 04/05/2007
Billy Gillispie was hired in 2007 to much fanfare after previous basketball head coach Tubby Smith left Kentucky under pressure from fans to take the head coaching position at the University of Minnesota.
In two seasons, Gillispie compiled a 40-27 record at Kentucky (.597), the worst two year stretch at UK since 1987-1989, Eddie Sutton's last two years, and was fired immediately after the 2009 season.
Gillispie's tumultuous tenure was the perfect example of what happens when you hire a coach that doesn't fit a university. Kentucky's hungry fans demanded a lot of attention from the head basketball coach, and Gillispie was unfortunately intolerant of public appearances. His prickly comments to sportscasters on national television, rumored hard partying (Gillispie was a bachelor) and extreme hardball coaching tactics bordering on player abuse might have been glossed over to some extent if the program had been more successful under him. But it was not.
Gillispie was unceremoniously shown the door March 27th, 2009, 9 days short of his second hiring anniversary.
The Loss To Gardner-Webb University 11/07/2007
Arguably, this game is part of the Billy Gillispie experiment, but it is so notoriously bad that it deserves it's own nomination. This game was played in Rupp Arena as part of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, a game that Kentucky was supposed to win to get to the finals in Madison Square Garden to play the Connecticut Huskies, and then either John Calipari's Memphis Tigers team, or the Oklahoma Sooners.
Gardner-Webb drilled Kentucky 84-68 on their home floor in the most embarrassing loss in basketball program history. It has been the subject of endless scorn, and deservedly so, ever since the event.
The Loss To Robert Morris, NIT 1st Round 2013
This is a relatively recent disaster that we all remember too well. After a disappointing, injury-riddled season that saw John Calipari miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, the Wildcats were seeded #1 in the 2013 NIT.
Because of arrangements by Rupp Arena made earlier in the year to host the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, Kentucky could not host Robert Morris as they were scheduled to do. Instead, the Wildcats were forced to travel to the tiny Robert Morris gym in Moon Township, Calipari's home town, and face the Colonials.
Kentucky lost a very close game, but in the end were upset by the 8-seeded RMU. That game marks the first time in history that an NCAA tournament champion lost in the first round of the NIT the year after winning the title.
The Bluegrass Miracle, 11/09/2002
The "Bluegrass Miracle" gets a place here not because it was a true "disaster," as is a major upset or some other fiasco, but the outcome was disastrous in it's unexpected, shocking nature. It's a game that still resonates today as one of the most incredible finishes in an SEC football game in history, and an argument can be made that it is at the very top of the list.
For those that don't remember this game, perhaps a video reminder will help:
You can find further description of the events at NOLA.com in their ten year anniversary article. To this day, the "Bluegrass Miracle" remains one of the most memorable, and perhaps the greatest "Hail Mary" play in SEC football history, and Kentucky is on the short end.
Well, those are my nominations. For those of you wondering about the lack of the disastrous probation at the end of the Eddie Sutton era, those types of cataclysms are not allowable by the rules of this exercise except as the act that led to the sanctions. An argument could be made for the inclusion of the infamous Emery Worldwide package from Dwayne Casey addressed to then-UK recruit Chris Mills' father, which allegedly fell open and spilled out $1,000 into the laps of Emery employees in California.
I chose not to include that incident because of several reasons, including:
- Dwayne Casey was not in Lexington when the express package was allegedly sent;
- Chris Mills' father asserts to this day that he received no money. What happened, did the Emery employees execute a "finders keepers" claim on it?
- Emery settled a libel suit by Casey for a substantial amount of money.
- The NCAA rescinded their show-cause order against Casey immediately following the announcement of the Emery settlement with Casey.
Ultimately, the evidence is not only inconclusive as to Casey's culpability, but actually suggests he didn't send the package. There is simply no conclusive evidence that anyone from the University of Kentucky ever sent money at all, and so I consider this matter too sketchy to include.
Arguments could also be made for other Kentucky scandals including the "death penalty" disaster in 1952-53, where the entire season was canceled not by the NCAA, but by the Southeastern Conference, who voted to ban the Wildcats from competition that year. However, that "disaster" was not really so disastrous, as Kentucky came back the very next year and went 25-0, and declined a bid to the NCAA tournament due to the stipulation at the time that graduate students were ineligible for competition.
In the end, I think these five events are the best, most unambiguous candidates for the honor of "Biggest Kentucky SEC Disaster." So vote up.