The Sleeping Giant of UK Basketball Reawakens

A very large institution, University of Kentucky basketball isn't one to dwell on bad times, savor them for character building lessons, beg for mercy or just sit there and take it. Ordinary struggle for other programs is trial-by-fire at UK. Anyone else

A very large institution, University of Kentucky basketball isn’t one to dwell on bad times, savor them for character building lessons, beg for mercy or just sit there and take it. Ordinary struggle for other programs is trial-by-fire at UK.

Anyone else who thinks they have the biggest or baddest program is shamed into silence by watching UK at a moment like this.

Imagine the impending moral disaster for UK basketball on the morning of March 29. The school administration had just fired basketball coach Billy Clyde Gillispie two years into his term because he wasn’t very smooth.

Meanwhile, the reviled city team with the turncoat coach was winning. Louisville had Rick Pitino gunning for the Final Four, while Kentucky, looking broken, licked its wounds after a fourth straight season with a dozen or more losses.

Gillispie didn’t really hurt anything. He just didn’t help.

In the two years leading to Gillispie, the two final years of Tubby Smith, the Wildcats lost a dozen games per year instead of the usual five or six, they left the NCAA Tournament in the second round and they faltered in blue chip recruiting, which is essential for a public that always craves hope for the future. By the time Smith left for Minnesota, the immediate future looked bleak.

Gillispie recruited like mad to bring five-star recruits back to Rupp Arena. But the immediate future Smith left behind delivered him a mediocre present.

For two years, Gillispie grew the seeds that Smith sowed. But Gillispie also sowed seeds for the future, and his recruiting delivered hope. The imagination easily saw Kentucky jumping back into the national picture as soon as next year.

And that’s why Kentucky fired him now. Next year, maybe Gillispie could have delivered a 30-5 season with an Elite Eight, and that’s too late to fire him. Big Blue nation would have been miserable, because by no account was Gillispie a UK kind of personality.

The basketball coach at UK must be an exemplary public performer even if he’s a complete phony. Kentucky is a different place since Adolf Rupp because — not to be snide — most of the homes have televisions now.

The basketball coach at Kentucky must be priestly, dignified, entertaining and successful. He must be reverent about local traditions and reverent about basketball, but not so much that he doesn’t have time for the big hitters who wish to be revered by the UK coach so they can revere him back. He must be a performer.

Above all, he must make people feel good.

Kentuckians follow Kentucky basketball because it makes them feel good. If Kentucky basketball doesn’t make Kentuckians feel good, it fails.

For a good many Kentuckians, Kentucky is a tough place to live. In times like this, it’s real tough. Now, more than ever, Kentucky needs Kentucky basketball to make it feel good, and Gillispie couldn’t do it.

That job calls for a man to be more than he is, even if that makes him something that he’s not, and Gillispie simply isn’t built to be more than he is. He’s just a ball coach. Kentuckians need a compensatory hero, a spirit guide to carry them through winter.

Kentucky once had that man, of course. His name was Rick Pitino, who blew in from the New York Knicks in 1989 to raise a program from the rubble of probation. Pitino immediately produced thrilling, racehorse basketball with help from four Kentucky kids — John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer and Reggie Hanson (plus Sean Woods from Indianapolis) — who stayed for the cause.

Kentuckians fell in love with that 14-14 team, setting attendance records at Rupp Arena. By 1992, when Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer and Woods were seniors, the Wildcats were all the way back to within one heartbreaking shot of the Final Four.

In the next five years, Pitino delivered an Elite Eight, a Final Four, a national runner-up and a national champion. He produced, for the UK faithful, a heroic force for good.

But the story of the hero took a rather wicked turn, didn’t it? Pitino followed the lure of the NBA to the Boston Celtics. His first draft went awry when the lottery awarded Tim Duncan to the San Antonio Spurs.

Soon Pitino told Celtics fans that Larry Bird wasn’t about to walk through their door, just as Kentucky fans knew Pitino wouldn’t walk back through theirs. But a door opened at Louisville, and Pitino walked through that one.

Many Kentucky fans feel betrayed, having received a dose of Pitino, but it didn’t really ache until recent years, as the Wildcats declined while their nearest and fiercest rival prospered under the coach who went to the dark side. In the last two years, while Kentucky won no NCAA Tournament games, Pitino’s UL teams went to two Elite Eights.

So along came the morning of March 29. The Wildcats looked for a coach, and a bit of apprehension surfaced that maybe Kentucky isn’t what it used to be, that the decline is real and that no high-profile coach would take on the demands when he could win somewhere else just as well. Meanwhile, Louisville needed only to beat Michigan State later in the day for advancement to the Final Four, where a national championship might follow.

If you’re a UK basketball fan, you felt the pull of that moment. The whole world of college basketball, civilization as you knew it, receded before your eyes. You might have thought for a moment that these are the end times.

Pitino once called UK the “Roman Empire” of Kentucky basketball, and we know what happened to the Roman Empire — it collapsed into a new moment in history. It made way for a new world order. Could Kentucky basketball hold off the new world order any better than the Romans?

We sometimes laugh at UK’s obsession about basketball, but at a moment like this the obsession reveals heartening ferocity. Whoever are the true forces behind Kentucky basketball, they’re putting up a fight. And they’re winning. They’re making the clouds part, and the storm is going away.

A little help arrived from Michigan State, which beat Louisville and saved UK fans the humiliation of another Final Four for the city team. And by the end of March 30, UK appeared to have fired its most awesome weapon, offering Memphis coach John Calipari a reported six-year contract for $40 million.

By the end of that evening, some reports said Calipari accepted the job, others said he was strongly leaning that way, others said it appeared at the least that he was unlikely to return to Memphis. UK mounted a comeback, perhaps the most momentous in its history.

Calipari is 50, a slightly younger version of Pitino with a similar career path. He has taken Massachusetts and Memphis deep into the tournament. He’s telegenic, he’s a great recruiter who’s large enough for the job and he plays an athletic dribble drive offense that will ignite the fans.

[UPDATE: UK introduced Calipari as its head coach on April 1, signing him to an eight-year $31.65 million contract.]

UK isn’t taking these dozen-loss seasons lying down, nor is it just going to let Pitino and Louisville take the stage. Once again, UK basketball is making its fans feel good. UK is on the way back.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]
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