Rockin' Rupp Arena welcomes Gillispie during Big Blue Madness
Oct. 13, 2007
By Gary Parrish
CBSSports.com Senior Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Four white curtains hung from the ceiling to the floor in a way that completely hid the logo at center court, not to mention anybody who might've been standing on it. So when the lights went down and the name started flashing on the screens, you just knew something was about to happen, that those flames on the goals would soon be high, that those fireworks nearby would soon blast off.
And then they did.
And then the curtains dropped.
And right there behind them, there he was, the person who made this always wild atmosphere even wilder than normal. Standing and waving and flashing that big old goofy smile, Billy Gillispie received an ovation fit for, well, fit for the new basketball coach at Kentucky. And when the chant died down and the clapping finally ceased, this Texas man who was an assistant at Illinois just six years ago was handed the microphone and asked for his first impressions.
"I can't talk," Gillispie said.
Ahhh, (Wild)cat got your tongue, Billy?
But in all seriousness, it's difficult to blame Gillispie for being totally overwhelmed. Because regardless of all the games he's won and lost in his still relatively young career (featuring stops at UTEP and Texas A&M), there's nothing in Gillispie's 47 years on this planet that happened before Friday night that could've possibly prepared him for what it's like to stand in the middle of Rupp Arena and give other humans goosebumps.
No, I'm not exaggerating.
An actual conversation I overheard when the crowd of 23,313 exited went exactly like this ...
Guy No. 1: Did you get goosebumps when Coach Gillispie walked out?
Guy No. 2: Did you see me?
Seriously, that is Kentucky basketball.
It's impressive and insane and admirable and ridiculous.
It's the best thing that could happen to a coach when he's winning, the worst when he's not. And there's nothing capable of demonstrating this better than the annual Big Blue Madness ceremony, which is supposed to be the first practice of the season but is really more of a pep rally complete with the cheerleaders and the dance team and a little speech from former Wildcat great Kenny 'Sky' Walker.
"I think if they could have Big Blue Madness at Commonwealth Stadium, they'd fill it up," Walker said. "They would."
Hard to argue.
And speaking of Commonwealth Stadium, the guy who will spend Saturday on the sideline trying to lead Kentucky to its first win over a top-ranked team since 1964 -- namely, Rich Brooks -- made an appearance at Big Blue Madness and pleaded with the fans.
"I have just one favor to ask," Brooks said. "I want all of this noise when LSU is on offense."
Meantime, Gillispie bounced around the floor, waving and winking and shaking hands like a politician, and while his players wrapped a scrimmage, he sat on the bench with his arm around former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, which is further proof that Gillispie just gets it. He understands how much tradition means at UK, how the past is as important as the future. So he smiles and embraces it all, and when he actually gets around to talking, he manages to put all the correct words together and say things these fans want so badly to hear.
Things like ...
"I have such a sense of the history of basketball. I love it."
"You can't feel any better than I feel right now."
"We're going to play as fast as we possibly can." (YES!!! No more Tubby-ball!! )
"It’s going to be a real, real, real bad deal for anybody to try to come to Rupp Arena and beat us."
At that last statement, the place erupted. Men yelled, women screamed, children jumped and hollered and high-fived everybody. All the while, there was a guy behind Gillispie in an Elvis costume holding a blue banner with the all seven of Kentucky's national title years on it, and there was a little room left at the bottom, you know, just in case.