Welcoming Billy Gillispie

Welcoming Billy Gillispie

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.

Racism Revisited

Racism Revisited

A couple of recent events got me thinking about the sensitive issue of race.

The first occurred on Christmas Day when I watched “Reggie Warford: Fight of His Life.” Although the inspirational documentary zeroed in on Reggie’s current life-threatening health issues, much of the story chronicled his early battles with racism. As the first African American basketball player to graduate from the University of Kentucky in 1976, Reggie endured the many slings and arrows as “the loneliest athlete in America.”

The second event occurred just a couple of days ago with the passing of Houston Hogg. Hogg, who played football at the University of Kentucky from 1967-70, together with his African American teammates, broke the Southeastern Conference color barrier—thus paving the way for thousands of other athletes to follow.

Both Reggie and Houston were pioneers of integration, forever changing the landscape of sports in America. Because UK Basketball and Football have been such a big part of my life, I’m indebtedly grateful for their courage and sacrifice in making UK Athletics what it is today. I can’t imagine what it was like for either Reggie or Houston as they navigated through the prejudices and turmoil of the 60s and 70s. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really knew their stories or felt their pain.

There aren’t many issues in the world more divisive than ones involving race. It’s always been that way—at least in my lifetime. Growing up in the sixties, the battles over civil rights, school segregation, and affirmative action dominated the news headlines. In the nineties, the OJ Simpson saga had the entire nation polarized, as well as mesmerized. Even today, the specter of black versus white lies deceptively camouflaged, springing to life disguised as arguments involving police brutality and the appropriateness of kneeling during the national anthem.

In my personal experience, there are two segments of American society where outright racism lies comparatively dormant—the military and sports. Having served in the armed forces, I’ve seen people of every color work cohesively to support the mission at hand. In my role as a sportswriter, I’ve also seen the undeniable bond between teammates, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

But even in those realms, one would be extremely naïve to believe that prejudice is totally non-existent. The reality is that racism remains everywhere, often rearing its ugly head when you least expect it, forcing you to repeatedly re-examine the undeniable truth in our own Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Within our own beloved Big Blue Nation, Kentucky Basketball fans pride themselves on being one big unified family. Yet one of the most divisive issues among the rabid fan base is still whether Adolph Rupp was a racist. The Baron of the Bluegrass, the man in the brown suit, the winningest coach of the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball still gets eviscerated every time the race question gets brought up.

Why didn’t he recruit African American players—especially those in-state athletes so close to home? Why didn’t he cultivate a relationship with Dunbar High School’s late great African American coach S.T. Roach? What about Rupp’s allegedly overt racist halftime rant as recounted by Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated?

For the many that have written about and pointed an accusatory finger at Coach Rupp, just as many have come to his defense. There’s a vocal majority—including many of his former players—who swear the stories implying bigotry and prejudice were either distorted or taken completely out of context. Ardent Wildcat fans cringe at the very thought of always being portrayed as the villain in the notebook of revisionist history.

Understandably, the truth remains clouded. Adolph Rupp was a product of those turbulent times. Stereotypes, societal prejudices, and even the law of the land screamed “inequality.” People spoke, thought, and reasoned differently than they do today. How else can you explain “separate but equal”, the use of blackface, and smart and experienced broadcasters such as Howard Cosell making egregious racial on-air slurs? That doesn’t necessarily absolve people of blame, but it does give you a reason for understanding why they acted as they did.

At the risk of contracting foot-in-mouth disease, I’ll readily admit I have no earthly idea what it’s like to be African American—just like most of you have no idea what it’s like to be Asian. I can tell you several instances in my life where I faced outright derision and discrimination. There were also numerous times well-meaning acquaintances made what they thought were innocent or funny quips regarding my heritage that I deemed insensitive and hurtful. My point being that we just don’t know what it’s like until we’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.

I’d like to think that I don’t harbor any prejudices toward anyone. The reality, however, is that we all are influenced by the stereotypes of the era in which we grew up, lived, and breathed. How you thought, spoke, and acted in the 60s, 70s, or 80s was different than how you live, speak, and act today. What’s really important is what’s in your heart.

Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

Was Adolph Rupp a racist? I think the more appropriate question is “would Adolph Rupp be a racist in today’s day and age?”

I’d like to think not, but no one knows for sure what was in the Baron’s heart. What we do know is that racism and discrimination, in any way, shape, or form, is WRONG—and runs counter to the biblical truths instilled in us by our Creator.

If you’ve ever harbored feelings of superiority or arrogance because of the color of your own skin, there’s only one solution for you. SIMPLY BE BETTER! Go out of your way to view the world from the other person’s perspective. Be forever thankful for the sacrifices made by people like Reggie Warford and Houston Hogg who blazed those perilous trails.

Most importantly, examine your own heart. Extend grace to someone who has wronged you. Deliver mercy to those who have suffered.

And finally, if needed, ask God for forgiveness…and while you’re at it, please say a prayer for Reggie, Houston, and all their families.

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