Posted on Fri, Jan. 04, 2008
What's the difference?
Gillispie's honeymoon period much shorter than Pitino's
By Jerry Tipton
A humbled Kentucky program dislodged from its lofty perch and eager to regain pre-eminence.
That circumstance can produce wildly different responses from UK fans.
In 1989-90, the fans showered love on Rick Pitino. He inherited a program in disgrace and immediately transformed it into a thing of beauty. For one bright shining season, Rupp Arena became a house of joy. "Unforgettable" became part of the UK basketball lexicon.
In 2007-08, boos filled Rupp Arena in Game 2 of the Billy Gillispie error, er, era. A recruiting blitz in the months leading into his first season left fans with lovey-dovey eyes. Then the honeymoon abruptly ended, replaced by the metaphorical image of a fan base dressed in a housecoat, scowling face topped by a head full of curlers and wielding a frying pan. Losses to the likes of Gardner-Webb and San Diego remain unforgivable.
Didn't the widespread perception of subpar recruiting in the last few years of Tubby Smith's tenure and the transition to a new coach make this season's struggles predictable? If not, didn't the subsequent injuries to projected starters Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks make the stumbling start inevitable? Doesn't Gillispie deserve patient understanding from UK fans?
"Good question," said Richie Farmer, a player in 1989-90 and now Kentucky's Agriculture Commissioner. "It's hard to understand."
As Pitino leads Louisville into Rupp Arena on Saturday, the difference in those two seasons makes for a timely exercise in compare and contrast. It's easy to forget that Pitino's Unforgettables had a 5-7 record after 12 games in 1989-90. Gillispie brings a 6-6 record against Louisville.
Those who remember 1989-90 begin to explain the different fan reaction by citing expectations.
The year before Pitino's arrival brought an NCAA investigation, charges of buying a player and academic fraud, the specter of sanctions (maybe even the so-called death penalty, which had been administered to SMU football earlier in the decade), the first losing record since 1926-27 and multiple player defections. Sports Illustrated captured the moment with its famous cover headline: Kentucky's Shame.
"It had been a devastating year," said Chris Cameron, then UK's Sports Information Director and now Associate Athletic Director at Boston College. "So many bad things happened. Losing season. North Carolina overtaking Kentucky (for first on the list for most all-time victories). The year before had just been embarrassing."
Doug Gottlieb, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, likened Kentucky's 1988-89 season to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Although clearly guilty of gross hyperbole, Gottlieb had a point when he said, "Remember after 9-11. Everywhere you went, people were nice. You thought, that is what it's supposed to be like."
Kentucky fans were nicer, simply thankful to have a basketball program. With only eight players and no one taller than 6-foot-8, UK brought a compelling David-against-Goliath quality to its games.
"Any victory was an upset," said Brooks Downing, then a UK student and later the basketball program's spokesman. "Coach Pitino was the best at packaging a message and delivering it to the fan base. He basically set the (low) expectations."
Secretly, the Cats expected more.
"Even when people thought we may not win five games, in Coach Pitino's first conversation with the team, he said we're going to win and win right away," Farmer said. "Expectations in the locker room were a lot different than for the people in stands."
A 14-14 final record brought euphoria. "I'm sure that people were genuinely scared at the time," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "Rick brought hope and pride back to UK basketball."
Fast forward to 2007-08 and Kentucky stares at a .500 record. Yet boos punctuated the loss to Gardner-Webb and fan complaints touched on such subjects as the starting lineup (beginning with the first exhibition game), Gillispie's game attire (lack of blue in that first exhibition game), puzzling substitution patterns, Jared Carter's sitting time and Mark Coury's playing time.
Unlike Pitino's mastery of the public relations feint and spin, Gillispie gives UK basketball a guarded enigmatic persona. When asked on his pre-game radio show if Jodie Meeks would play against Tennessee Tech, he said, "I have no idea."
While Pitino inherited a mess, Gillispie took over a program that won 22 games. Seven of the losses were decided in overtime or by margins of no more than five points.
"Expectations were not to rebuild, but to take the next step and truly dominate," Bilas said. "But any time there is a change in leadership, there is usually a change in continuity and a resulting dip in performance. It happens everywhere. UCLA, North Carolina, you name it.
"Plus, Billy is not bringing in a change in style but something similar. He is bringing in a commitment to recruit better talent."
By its nature, recruiting takes time. Except for that glorious 1989-90 season, Kentucky fans only grudgingly give their coach that precious commodity.
"Everybody I talk to says we're going to give this guy one year," said former UK All-American Kenny Walker, who cited the loss to Gardner-Webb as pivotal. "People hit the panic button. That's a small school Kentucky is really supposed to beat no matter what. That's the game that changed everything."
A TALE OF TWO SEASONS
The first 12 games at Kentucky for Rick Pitino (5-7) and Billy Gillispie (6-6). (Rank refers to the opponents' ranking at the time of the game.)
Date Team Result Score Rank
Nov. 28 OHIO W 76-73 14
Dec. 2 x-Indiana L 71-69
Dec. 4 MISSISSIPPI ST. W 102-97
Dec. 6 TENNESSEE TECH W 111-75
Dec. 9 at Kansas L 150-95 2
Dec. 19 FURMAN W 104-73
Dec. 22 y-PORTLAND W 88-71
Dec. 23 y-LA.-LAFAYETTE L 116-113(OT)
Dec. 27 z-North Carolina L 121-110 24
Dec. 30 LOUISVILLE L 86-79 8
Jan. 3 at Georgia L 106-91
Jan. 6 at Vanderbilt L 92-85
x-RCA Dome, Indianapolis; y-UKIT; z-Freedom Hall, Louisville;
Date Team Result Score Rank
Nov. 6 a-CENT. ARKANSAS W 67-40
Nov. 7 a-Gardner-Webb L 84-68
Nov. 21 LIBERTY W 80-54
Nov. 24 TEXAS SOUTHERN W 83-35
Nov. 27 STONY BROOK W 62-52
Dec. 1 NORTH CAROLINA L 86-77 1
Dec. 8 at Indiana L 70-51 15
Dec. 15 b-UAB L 79-76
Dec. 18 at Houston L 83-69
Dec. 22 TENNESSEE TECH W 69-47
Dec. 29 SAN DIEGO L 81-72
Dec. 31 Fla. International W 92-49
a-2K College Sports Hoops Classic; b-Freedom Hall, Louisville