The other night, my friend and colleague, Keith Taylor, and I were talking about Bobby Knight. The guy goes by “Bob” now, but those of us old enough to remember the volatile chair-throwing, Joe B. Hall-back-of-the-head-slapping, Neil-Reed-choking, Puerto-Rico-policeman punching, IU-student-shaming, former Hoosier Basketball head coach, will always think of him as “Bobby.”
Indiana University, after a long and bitter estrangement, welcomed Knight back to Assembly Hall last week after giving him the pink slip nearly twenty years earlier. After a highly exalted thirty-year coaching career and guiding the red menace to three NCAA titles, it seemed to me like the proper thing to do. Forgive and forget, kiss and make up, and let bygones be bygones. Life is way too short to hold on to such vindictive grudges.
Keith then went on to write about Kentucky following Indiana’s lead and honoring its own bevy of former coaches. If the Hoosiers were willing to bury the hatchet and reconcile with Knight, then surely the Wildcats could do the same with Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, and Tubby Smith.
I second Keith’s motion. In fact, I’ll go a step further. In addition to Sutton, Pitino, and Smith, let’s also honor Billy Gillispie while we’re at it. After all, he’s still a very real part of our Wildcat history and tradition—part of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. And history—whether good or bad—should be remembered, right?
Come to think of it, let’s honor them all. Line everybody who’s ever coached at Kentucky up at midcourt on a special “celebration of former coaches” night, and let’s shower them all with the recognition they deserve.
Granted, having Adolph Rupp back would be a bit awkward since he’s dead (as are the previous fifteen UK coaches who went before him). But it’s obvious the Baron of the Bluegrass is still quite revered among loyal Kentucky fans. Over forty years later, the arena the Wildcats play in still bears his name. It’s got a bank attached to it now, but I think the man who won 876 games and four NCAA Championships wouldn’t feel the least bit slighted. As tight as he was with his money, he probably would have embraced it—BY GAWD!
Nothing brings more joy to my soul than the sight of Joe B. Hall cheering on the Cats from his trademark seat a couple of rows off the floor at Rupp Arena (at Central Bank Center). At 91 years of age now, it’s getting harder and harder for him to make the trip in. Being the man who follows a legend is the most difficult job in sports. Joe B. did that with grace and class. Getting a well-deserved thunderous ovation when he’s introduced—for perhaps one of the final times—is something fans should readily savor.
Tubby Smith had a nice ten-year run in Lexington. Winning 263 games, one national title, and being inducted into the UK Athletic Hall of Fame is nothing to scoff at. Although he played Saul a little too much, and Tubby himself got a tad lazy on the recruiting trail in his later years, it’s still easy for fans to welcome him back with open arms, warm hugs, and blue kisses.
Here’s where it starts getting a little difficult.
Eddie Sutton once said he would crawl all the way to Lexington to take the Kentucky job. Four short years later, he was leaving town in disgrace with 88 wins and a scandalous program trailing in his wake. That mysterious Emory Freight package remains a mystery to this day. It was said back then that Kentuckians liked their hair and bourbon the same way—straight. Sutton had too little of the former and too much of the latter. He was a brilliant coach with an all-too-common flaw. It’s time for BBN to give him a mulligan and show him some love before it’s too late.
Talk about fatal flaws, how about Rick Pitino? He’s built his legacy on lies, sex, and strippers in the dorm rooms. But look at it this way—the guy did bring Kentucky Basketball back from the dead. In eight years as head coach, he got Kentucky 219 wins and another national title—two if you count the one Tubby won with his players. Unfortunately, he jilted BBN—first for the glory and riches of the NBA, and then again for the unforgivable slap-in-the-face gig with little brother down the road. It’s hard to forgive Benedict Arnold, but you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for his recent embarrassing fall from grace. What he did for Kentucky, however, deserves our genuine gratitude. I’m betting Kentucky fans will cheer rather than jeer when his name is finally called.
That brings us to Billy Gillispie. In only two short years, Billy Clyde took Kentucky from the penthouse to the outhouse. Embarrassing home losses to Gardner Webb and VMI notwithstanding, it was his inability to handle the day-to-day rigors of running the Roman Empire that eventually got him fired. He won 40 games in his abbreviated tenure, but the awkward interviews, player abuse allegations, and rumors of hot tub escapades just couldn’t be ignored.
As bizarre as all that sounds, you can’t pin all the blame on Billy. Without the proper training and support, he was put in a position where he was bound to fail. Since he left Kentucky, the poor guy has also struggled mightily with the bottle and battled some very serious health complications as well. A bad hire from the get-go, we owe Gillispie at least a tiny dose of sympathy if not a generous serving of compassion.
Despite the fact that Gillispie sued UK for $6 million in an attempt to recoup his lost salary, I say it’s time to turn the other cheek. In fact, someone far greater than me once said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
The University of Kentucky is the winningest college basketball program of all time. All of the aforementioned coaches have contributed to that win total. Like them or not, they’re all part of the grand legacy that is Kentucky Basketball. As loyal fans of the program, it’s time for all of us to take the high road, hand over our checkerboard coats, and welcome every one of those coaches back into our good graces.
If Indiana can welcome back Bobby Knight, Kentucky should go the extra mile and welcome back Billy Gillispie.