Following the loss to Notre Dame in the N.I.T. Quarterfinals, many wondered what would transpire with the University of Kentucky basketball program. Something had to happen, right? After starting the season 16-4, they appeared destined for a SEC Championship. Then the wheels came off.
They lost eight of their last 11 to end the regular season, fell to LSU in the second round of the SEC tournament and, in doing so, ended any remaining hope that they would be invited to play in the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky was absent from the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years. But, that wasn’t the only thing that was absent. Absent from UK basketball was a simple three-letter word, F-U-N. The players were not having fun. The coaching staff was not having fun. The administration was not having fun. The fans were not having fun.
Seeing a player in a Kentucky uniform smile was about as rare as seeing them set up in a 2-3 zone. And, by now, we all know Billy Gillispie’s stance on zone defense.
Something had to be done, but could Mitch Barnhart and the rest of the administration admit they made a mistake after just two seasons? Remember it was perceived by much of the sports nation that Kentucky had just run Tubby Smith out of town. A head coach who brought a championship, six Sweet Sixteen appearances and ten 20-win seasons to the bluegrass in his ten years as head coach.
Despite the abuse that they were bound to receive, Mitch Barnhart and Lee Todd dismissed Billy Gillispie of his duties on March 28, 2008, a mere three days after the loss to Notre Dame ended their season. It wasn’t just the losing. The losing certainly did not help matters, but it was a combination of things to led to his dismissal.
They admitted their mistake, but now they had to avoid making another one. This hire had to be a home run.
Immediately, rumors swirled around Billy Donovan. The two-time National Champion and protégé of Rick Pitino had already turned down Kentucky once, would he reject the opportunity to coach in Lexington again?
Donovan then announced that he was staying in Gainesville and would remain the head coach at the University of Florida. Donovan had shot down Kentucky again.
Now what? Attention then turned to John Calipari, Tom Izzo and even former Kentucky guard Travis Ford. In 2007, when looking for a head coach, Barnhart admittedly did not pursue Calipari. This time it was different, as both sides showed mutual interest.
Once the ball got rolling, it didn’t take long. John Calipari was announced as the 22nd head coach of the University of Kentucky Men’s basketball team, and just the seventh in the last 79 years, on April 1, 2009.
Immediately, everything appeared different. Gone was Gillsipie’s smirks and snide comments. In their place was a man who enjoyed speaking with the media and even embraced the opportunity of being the face of Kentucky.
John Calipari was adamant that he was not the “Grand Poobah” but he was also adamant in his belief that they could bring a banner to Rupp Arena in a short amount of time. It would not happen overnight, but the University of Kentucky basketball program would return to where it belonged, in the spotlight.
We are now a mere month-and-a-half into the Calipari era and he has yet to even coach a game at Rupp. Yet, fans and journalists across the nation are crowning Calipari exactly what he said he wasn’t, the Grand Poobah. Sure, no one really knows who, or what, the Grand Poobah is, but his first six weeks on the job have been nothing short of remarkable.
He made appearances on P.T.I. and on SportsCenter, was interviewed at the NCAA Final Four and then by Jeannine Edwards at the Kentucky Derby. The same Jeannine Edwards that Billy Gillispie had made famous with his awkward and uninspiring encounters. When Calipari spoke with Edwards, he actually seemed congenial and even poked fun at the Gillispie interviews.
Everything had spun full-circle and the Jeannine Edwards’ interviews embodied that transition.
Calipari was anywhere and everywhere, promoting Kentucky basketball, something the previous head coach shied away from.
He wasn’t just everywhere on your television screen, he was everywhere on the recruiting trail as well. Bringing in DeMarcus Cousins, Darnell Dodson and Eric Bledsoe. All the while, maintaining the previous commitments of Jon Hood and Daniel Orton.
How could the off season go any better for Kentucky?
Then Patrick Patterson, who many believed was destined for the NBA, decided to return for his junior season. The opportunity to get his degree, a renewed sense of excitement and a chance for a National Title were all just too much to pass up.
A National Championship that seemed so far away, just seven weeks ago. Now all of a sudden, it is a definite possibility.
Then today came the arrival of John Wall. The number one prospect in the land. Without Wall, Kentucky’s 2009 class was probably the best in the country. With the addition of Wall, you are foreseeably looking at one of the best classes in the history of college basketball.
This all from a coach who has yet to coach a game.
And we are not even sure if Jodie Meeks, a second team All-American from a year ago, is returning. If he comes back, you are staring an off-season square in the face that Kentucky fans could not have scripted any better.
When Calipari arrived in Lexington, he called the University of Kentucky his “dream job”. Now, whether right or wrong, Kentucky fans are dreaming of (expecting?) a Final Four in 2009. All of this in just a little over six weeks!
Sure, Kentucky fans are probably a little over-excited, but after two years of dealing with Billy Gillispie and his “No Fun” policy, fans deserve to smile and they deserve to see the players wearing the Kentucky uniform do the same.
Win or lose, next season is going to be F-U-N!