|There have been no championships, no sustained periods of calm or positive vibes. Until very recently, there were relatively few hints of past glory.
For much of this past decade, it’s safe to say that all was not well in this particular Kingdom.
But the true test of greatness is often measured as much by resilience as by the sheer number of wins. Great teams have a knack for finding ways to shine light into the darkness, for uncovering ways to avoid falling into the abyss for more than a brief moment. Ways to avoid becoming also-rans. Ways to rebuild and redeem. Big Blue fans fully understand what the word renaissance means.
Throughout its grand history, UK basketball has not only survived more than its share of dark moments, it has found the strength—the will—to rise from the ashes. Regardless of how down the program appeared to be, it has always found a way to rebound, survive and thrive.
During those dark moments, when all seemed lost, the UK program has been blessed with a handful of individuals—saviors, if you will—who arrived on the scene like super heroes just in the nick of time. Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey were on hand after UK was suspended for the 1952-53 season; Cotton Nash showed up at a time when UK’s recruiting had fallen on hard times; Joe B. Hall integrated the program and brought it into the 20th Century; Rick Pitino landed on these shores during what may have been UK’s darkest hour, then proceeded to put the program back on the “Glory Road” built by Adolph Rupp.
John Calipari is UK’s latest savior, having taken over a program that had not only fallen on hard times—courtesy of the disastrous Billy Gillispie experiment—but had also seen fans’ enthusiasm wane. In the year prior to Calipari’s arrival UK failed to make it into the NCAA Tournament, having to settle for a spot in the NIT. There were no rankings in the Top 20, no SEC titles, no respect within the college basketball world. The dark cloud of despair had descended.
Calipari changed all that in a most dramatic fashion. In two seasons, Calipari’s teams carved out a 64-12 record, dominated SEC play, both in the regular season and the tournament, and earned a berth in the Final Four. His teams were exciting to watch, loaded with talent, played hard and, most important of all, they were winners. Big-time winners.
Perhaps of equal importance, Calipari re-energized the Big Blue Nation fan base. Excitement for UK hoops reached levels not seen since the days when Pitino was calling the shots. Thanks to Calipari—and his off-the-charts recruiting ability—the UK program was once again back where it belonged—among the elite programs in all of college hoops.
In the original Introduction to the book, I argued that the two most successful sports teams of the 20th Century were the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats. That’s a statement I stand behind 100 percent, and an argument I firmly believe I can win. After all, it’s easy to win when the facts (victories) back you up.
The Yankees and the Wildcats were models of sustained excellence. Other teams soared across the sports firmament, only to flame out or disintegrate completely. Today’s superpower became tomorrow’s faded memory. But not UK or the Yankees. Those two teams reached the highest heights and remained there for almost the entire century.
However, the 21st Century has dawned much differently for both of those proud and mighty teams. The Yankees have claimed only a single World Series title since 2000, and making matters worse for pinstripe fans, they have had look on indignantly as their hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox, have become Major League Baseball’s new beast.
For Big Blue fans, the situation is even more dire and indignant. Not only have the Cats failed to win another NCAA title since 1998, they have watched Florida ascend to the mountaintop, winning back-to-back NCAA championships on the court and many top prospects on the recruiting trail. Talented players who formerly dreamed of becoming Wildcats opted instead for the land of sun, sand and ocean.
(Florida as two-time NCAA champs! Surely, old Adolph Rupp is looking down in amazement and utter disbelief.)
Smooth Waters Once Again
Another change, of course, and arguably the most significant, is the coaching situation. When last we met, Tubby Smith was at the helm, three years removed from having led UK to its seventh NCAA Championship. A mere seven years later, Smith, a man of enormous class and character, packed his bags and headed off to take over at the University of Minnesota.
(Minnesota rather than UK? Rupp’s amazement and disbelief just shot off the charts.)
Tubby, it seems, had worn out his welcome at UK, having alienated a vast segment of Big Blue fanatics, many of whom spent endless time and energy raking the coach over the coals for everything from recruiting failures to a boring style of play to, well, just about anything short of homicide. In the end, the coach labeled “10-Loss Tubby” by disgruntled fans could seemingly do nothing right. So, he bolted for The Land of 1000 Lakes, taking over a basketball program that had hit rock bottom.
Mitch Barnhart, UK’s athletics director, wasted little time choosing Smith’s successor, plucking little-known Billy Gillispie from relative obscurity and thrusting him into the heated glare of UK’s never-ending spotlight. Few coaches anywhere have gone farther faster than did Gillispie. From high school coach to head man at UK in just over a decade certainly qualifies as a meteoric rise within your chosen profession.
Gillispie, known as a workaholic and a master recruiter, had performed admirably during previous stints at UTEP (two years) and Texas A&M (three years). No doubt, his recruiting prowess played a key role in his landing the job. Remember, recruiting failures topped the list of grievances UK fans had against Tubby.
Gillispie, supremely confident, quickly proved that his reputation as a recruiter wasn’t overblown. He landed Patrick Patterson and Alex Legion, two highly sought-after prep stars, and another half-dozen underclassmen who made early commitments to join UK in upcoming years.
But Gillispie’s instant popularity and fast start didn’t last too long. Less than two months into the season, the combination of a slow start by the Wildcats, who often looked lost and disorganized on both ends of the court, and Legion’s defection was enough to cause Big Blue fans to wonder if perhaps the jury was still out on the new coach.
(Of course, the hard core Tubby Bashers laid the blame on Smith, arguing that because he left the coffers bare, Gillispie inherited a roster lacking in talent or depth.)
In fact, Gillispie’s coffers weren’t necessarily bare, they were simply depleted. Injuries rattled his first team from the beginning. Jodie Meeks, Derrick Jasper and Jared Carter all missed considerable playing time.
As a result, Gillispie rarely ever had his five best players on the court at the same time. And when you’re at UK, where you always wear the bulls-eye, both in and out of Southeastern Conference play, not having a full and healthy arsenal usually translates into disaster.
Compounding the situation was Gillispie’s personality. Or, his lack of a personality. There is simply no denying that he was something of an odd duck from the very beginning. He never really appeared to be comfortable in his role as UK coach. His lack of social skills, combined with an apparent unwillingness to accept the fact that the UK coach is more than a guy who pushes X’s and O’s around on a chalkboard, provided an undercurrent that ran through his two years at the helm. Gillispie failed to grasp a simple fact: the UK coach is a movie star and a rock star and a high-profile celebrity all rolled into one. In short, he is easily the most recognizable individual in the commonwealth. Gillispie never understood that.
Some of Gillispie’s coaching methods were unsound, as well. He had brutal game-day practices; his teams played strictly man-to-man defense, regardless of the situation; he stayed with certain players who weren’t producing; he played head games with other players; he was quicker to criticize than praise.
Then there was the strange situation concerning his contract (which he never signed) and his bizarre recruiting tendencies (offering scholarships to players yet to reach high school).
But in the end, none of those things meant as much as a 40-27 record, no SEC success and a failure to make it into the NCAA tourney.
So long, Billy G; hello, Coach Cal.
A savior, at just the right moment.
And once again, the UK ship is sailing on smooth waters.
Calipari was the perfect choice to rebuild the UK program. Successful coaching gigs at UMass and Memphis, along with a brief stint in the NBA, prepared him for the rigors—on court and off—that go hand-in-hand with guiding the UK program. He didn’t shy away from the challenge; he embraced it. He didn’t run away from the spotlight; he sought it out. He didn’t refuse to speak in front of UK alumni groups; he gladly made those appearances.
Of course, doing all the right things is only part of the deal. Racking up victories is what really matters. Moses come down from the mountain would be run out of town if he didn’t win enough games. Winning is what it’s ultimately all about.
And in that regard, Calipari is nothing but aces. The man had five straight 30-win seasons (the first coach to ever accomplish that) and seven overall. He has more than 500 wins as a college coach, a 76 percent winning rate, and he has racked up enough coaching honors to fill a medium-size museum. He has sent a host of players to the NBA, including five first-round picks from his first UK team.
(You can bet that Coach Rupp is now looking down, nodding his head in approval, happy with what he is seeing.)
In the final analysis, though, the ultimate success of the program rests where it always has—on the shoulders of the players who wear the blue and white. They’re the ones who put the ball in the basket, grab rebounds, had out assists and play defense. They are the true pillars upon which the UK basketball empire was built. They have been the life blood, the warriors who set an unbelievably high standard of excellence and then have sustained it for more than 100 years.
Few programs have had more truly great players than the University of Kentucky. The roll call of Big Blue giants sounds like a Who’s Who of college hoops. Their talent, dedication, sacrifice and athletic ability helped build a basketball program that gave all Kentuckians something to be proud of.
Thanks to them, we have all been able to journey down the “Glory Road.”