In the aftermath of our historic dismantling of the Kentucky Wildcats this past Wednesday night, the Big Blue Nation has understandably been wondering what has gone wrong with this season and where their program is headed. Much of the focus is on second-year coach Billy Gillispie, who, according to just about any Wildcats fan you ask, has not succeeded this year. Many are either implicitly of explicitly claiming that Gillispie is not the man for the job in Lexington, that he needs to be fired, and that the Cats should take a shot at a big-name, proven winner. My favorite Wildcats blog, A Sea of Blue, is awash with folks calling for Gillispie's head, although blog manager failure . Another UK blog I read, Danny Jett's Inner Circle, claims that the fans of the Big Blue are unhappy with Gillispie and that those fans have a right to be heard by the athletics department.
All of this makes one wonder: Does Gillispie's performance this year truly warrant dismissal? Are Cats fans' expectations too high? While it would be easy to say that the Big Blue Nation is full of crazies and that it would be pure lunacy to fire a second-year coach, the issue is more complicated than that. I, for one, believe that UK fans have every right to expect their Cats to be national contenders every single year. I don't have a record book in front of me, but, if I'm not mistaken, Kentucky has more wins than any other NCAA program and have seven national titles, second only to UCLA. Recently from the early Rick Pitino years to the last couple of seasons under Tubby Smith, the Cats were a regular fixture in the Top 10 and were a constant threat to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. They have the facilities, fan support, and insitutional infrastructure to bring in the best coaches and blue-chip talent. As someone who has visited Lexington, I can also say that the campus and city are gorgeous. If I were a high school basketball player, I wouldn't hesitate to come to Kentucky if they offered me a scholarship. All this means that it's completely reasonable for Kentucky fans to expect their Wildcats to be regulars in the Top 15 and a constant threat to win the NCAA Tournament.
Moreover, while many criticized the lack of fan support for Tubby Smith, I think Kentucky fans were justified in criticizing Smith performance. Smith, based on his success at Georgia, during his early years at Kentucky, and now at Minnesota, is clearly a great coach. However, the Kentucky program had grown stagnant in his final years in the Bluegrass. Smith's main problem was that he was unable to maintain the talent level in Lexington. As said, there's no reason to believe that a coach shouldn't be able to bring talent to Kentucky, so Smith's inability to do so was a damning failure on his part, a failure that warranted suspicion that Smith was no longer the man for the job at UK. Many have pointed to Smith's success at Minnesota as proof that Kentucky should have treated him better, but I think the truth is that Minnesota is just a better place for Smith. Minnesota doesn't require Smith to bring in blue chip talent and will be happy with him as long as he regularly makes the NIT and makes occasional appearances in the NCAAs. Those are goals that Smith, a master strategist, can easily obtain. At Kentucky, however, Smith had become unable to live up to reasonable expectations, so it was time for the two to part ways.
Despite the fact that Kentucky can reasonably expect great teams, though, I do not believe Kentucky fans are justified in putting Billy Gillispie on the hot seat at this point. This isn't to say that Gillispie has done a good job this year; his stubborn refusal to adjust his man-to-man defensive philosophy to his team's lack of elite defensive talent in the backcourt has cost his team this year. His teams have had several high turnover games, indicating a lack of mental focus and attention to fundamentals that reflects poorly on the coach. His substitution patterns have been odd at times. There are many indications that things aren't going well in the locker room. All of these points illustrate that Gillispie has not succeeded this year, and Wildcats fans have every right to voice their disapproval of the job he's done.
That said, there are a few reasons that Gillispie should be given more time. First of all, all coaches, excepting those that commit ethical breaches of some sort, deserve four or five years to build a program. It takes time to mold a program in one's image. Some Cats fans have pointed out that it didn't take Rick Pitino long to rebuild Kentucky in the early nineties and that some coaches such as our own Darrin Horn have been able to effect immediate turnarounds in their first year on the job. However, every job has its own particular circumstances: I can't speak for Pitino's early years, but Coach Horn, while certainly a runaway success in Columbia, inherited an experienced team and had the good luck to begin his career as a Gamecock in a down year for the SEC. Moreover, I would contend that we won't be able to truly judge the job Horn has done at USC until the fourth year. At that point, the roster will be his own and if we don't have a good team, he will have failed to build a successful team in his own image. That's why every coach deserves four or five years; you can't really say how successful a coach has been in less time.
Second of all and relatedly, Gillispie inherited a rebuilding job. I do believe that Kentucky should have a better record than they do right now, but the fact is that Tubby Smith did not leave the cupboard full for Gillispie. Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks are great players, but past them, Kentucky has not had the kind of talent needed to be a serious national contender. With a good recruiting class in the works and young players like Darius Miller beginning to emerge as contributors, there's good reason to believe that the Cats will have a more talented roster in future years, especially if Patterson and Meeks return next season. Gillispie should be given the opportunity to prove that he can succeed with a deeper roster.
Finally, Kentucky would be shooting itself in the foot by firing Gillispie. What coach would come there and expect to be given a reasonable amount of time to build a program? Of course, Kentucky fans will say that they could always do what Alabama did and spend an insanely large amount of money to get an A-list coach. However, Kentucky already tried to do that when they went after Billy Donovan after Smith left. Who would they go after this time? If they failed to get the big name, they would have to resort to getting someone with no better track record than what Gillispie brought from Texas A & M, and they'd have trouble doing it because coaches would be wary of the situation.
So there you have it: Gillispie needs more time. It may be a tough pill for Cats fans that are eager to see the days of Rupp and Pitino return to the Bluegrass, but the stats say that you don't fire a coach after two years. This is all probably a mute point, as Kentucky's athletics department will not bow to fan vitriol and fire Gillispie this year. However, it's something Cats fans may need to hear right now. Give your coach time to do his thing.