Thursday, March 19, 2009

Success--And Failure--Starts At The Top, Including Kentucky

After covering sports professionally for the better part of a decade and a half, I have learned a few things along way--some good, some bad, but all enlightening.

And if I have learned anything, I have learned that success and failure starts at the top. There has never been a great team or program without great leadership, and vice versa.

Think about all the celebrated teams through the years, in any sport, and each of them not only had competent coaches, but they were also guided by skilled general managers and owners or athletic directors and school presidents.

Lakers, Celtics, Yankees, Dodgers, Steelers, 49ers, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Notre Dame Football, UCLA Basketball. You name a great franchise or program, and I will show you impeccable management.

But the flipside is also true. There has never been a perennial loser that didn't have misguided direction.

Kentucky Basketball is, of course, one of the all-time greats in college basketball--a program others used as a model to build their own championship contender. However, the last several years have seen a decline in both results and leadership.

Most fans always look to the coach when placing blame for a team's shortcomings, and while that may be suitable for game-to-game situations, I believe that if a team struggles over a period of time, the responsibility ultimately falls upon the coach's boss.

Since Mitch Barnhart replaced C.M. Newton protégé Larry Ivy in the summer of 2002, he has been faced with two pivotal moments in the basketball program's history.

Towards the end of Tubby Smith's tenure at UK, a small portion of the Big Blue fan base started making noise about the team not reaching the Final Four since Tubby guided the Cats to the NCAA title in 1998, despite three other Elite Eight appearances.

(Editor's note: In 1999, the Cats lost to a Michigan State team, led by the heralded "Flintstones", which would win the title the following year. A red-hot Marquette team, featuring future Hall of Famer Dwayne Wade, knocked off UK in 2003. And two years later, Kentucky once again lost to Michigan State in a double-overtime thriller--still one of the best games in NCAA Tournament history.)

Did Tubby deserve some criticism? Sure. Was it fair for people to call for his job? Absolutely not.

This was a time where Barnhart should have done two things: 1) come out publicly stating that Tubby wasn't going anywhere no matter how much noise a few ignorant fans made and 2) tell Tubby that he needed to stop being so loyal to some of his assistants and replace them with more capable recruiters and player developers.

Barnhart did neither, and as a result, the win-loss records continued to decline and the Tubby bashers grew in number. Having grown tired of the ridiculous criticism and the perceived lack of appreciation and support, Tubby unexpectedly left UK to take the head coaching job at Minnesota.

That move presented Barnhart with his second pivotal moment. Who do you get to replace a national championship coach at Kentucky?

The choice was obvious: former Rick Pitino understudy Billy Donovan, who had just won back-to-back championships with Florida.

And Billy D was totally down for a relocation. He was about to lose four NBA draft picks off that 2-time championship team, meaning it would be quite the rebuilding project over the next couple of seasons. Perhaps more importantly though, no matter how successful he was on the court, Florida basketball would always play second fiddle to Florida football.

So getting Donovan to come to Lexington would be easy, right? Not for Barnhart evidently.

A former employee of the UK Athletics Department tells me that Barnhart completely dropped the ball on the deal. Bungling the negotiations so badly, it appears, that Donovan was somewhat concerned about the leadership and cooperation, or lack thereof, he would get from the administration.

Donovan decided to stay in Gainesville after receiving a nice pay increase and other goodies from Florida AD Jeremy Foley, who once again proved why he is one of the best ADs in the country.

Barnhart compounded this mistake by not having a backup plan. He seemed to have no idea who to pursue once Donovan turned him down. Thus, he was forced to scramble to find a coach who could not only succeed at the highest level, but also handle the ambassador-like responsibilities of being Kentucky's head coach.

Just two weeks after Tubby's departure, he ends up settling for Billy Gillispie, a coach who had only once finished first in his conference and had never made it past the Sweet 16. Really? That's the pedigree of a Kentucky basketball coach?

(Editor's note: In his second year at UTEP, Billy G led the Miners to the WAC regular season championship. That team lost its opening round game in the NCAA Tournament. Three years after taking over at Texas A&M, Billy G got the Aggies to the Sweet Sixteen. That team featured future first-round draft pick Acie Law, a player Gillispie did not recruit to College Station. Gillispie's 5-year combined win-loss record as a head coach before coming to Kentucky was 100-58!!)

As much criticism as Billy G deserves for the debacle of a season the Cats put together this year, Barnhart deserves as much, if not more.

But the buck doesn't stop there. Remember, you can always trace everything, both good and bad, all the way to the top. And the top at UK is the President's office.

Lee Todd said he wanted to "change the culture of Wildcat athletics" in 2002 by hiring Barnhart, who became the school's first AD since 1934 without any previous ties to Kentucky as either a player, coach or staff member.

(Editor's note: I won't even mention Barnhart's ties to border-rival Tennessee).

First, I wasn't aware that the program's culture was in need of a makeover. I thought Newton did a remarkable job of renovating the athletics department after the Chris Mills-Emery Delivery scandal.

But if you are going to go that route, then you have to hire the right person. Kentucky is a national basketball power. It needs an AD who not only understands that concept, but fully embraces it.

Instead of going to another school featuring a commitment to having a national basketball presence like North Carolina, Kansas or UCLA, President Todd hired Barnhart away from a very regional school in Oregon State. The Beavers hadn't been relevant on the national basketball scene since Gary Payton left campus in 1990, and it's a stretch for me to even type "relevant".

(Final editor's note: UNC, KU, and UCLA have combined for seven Final Four appearances during Barnhart's tenure at Kentucky.)

So in "changing the culture of Wildcat athletics," President Todd changed the basketball program from a national power into a regional one. You hire a regional AD, you get a regional head basketball coach, and that's exactly what Billy Gillispie's career suggested he was before he came to Kentucky, and that's exactly what he's proven since he's been there.

Only an ill-prepared athletics director couldn't see that then or now, and you can say the same for the school president who would hire such an AD.


Anonymous said...

Umm . . . I think Barnhart did tell Tubby to clean out his assistants and Tubby said, No thanks, I quit.

Anonymous said...

So the first Amendment works for you and your agenda but no comments . . . you suck.

Anonymous said...

Can you please send this to the Lexington Herald Leader or to USA Today? You are absolutely, positively correct. You know exactly what you are talking about and the sports world and KY should know.

Anonymous said...

You are wrong on both accounts.

1. Mitch did come out and publicly support Barnhart after the loss to KU.
2. He demanded that Tubby fire his staff. Tubby didn't and left for Minny.

Chris said...

It's disheartening, because all the average fan can do is sit back and watch our program go down the tube. Not sure how to make a difference at that type of level, all we can do is hope they get it right this time... or leave. And actually, BCG has never made it past the Sweet 16.

Michael Eaves said...

here is a response i received privately.. that i thought i would share with the readers..

FROM A FORMER UK PLAYER: 100% agree. I made mention of Mitch’s failure to back Tubby the year before his last. The AD at U of L had done so with Pitino and the noise faded. I believe Mitch knew what he was doing by not showing support. Tubby even mentioned to some friends of his disappointment from the top. It’s a shame man, there are those TODAY that blame Tubby for this mess we’re in. All the players I’ve spoken to are fed up. Very nice article.

Michael Eaves said...

for those concerned about the comments.. i have to moderate them before they are posted because some people don't know how to refrain from foul language.. i post all responses.. unless they contain profanity!!

one other point.. as far as mitch telling tubby to fire his staff.. barnhart wanted to say who tubby could hire and who he couldn't.. what championship coach would agree to that?

Michael Eaves said...

one more private response.. this one from a FORMER UK ATHLETICS DEPARTMENT EMPLOYEE: That blog was a work of art. You hit it on the head!

Anonymous said...

I thought Barnhart did tell Tubby to replace his assistants too, a year too late perhaps. I supported Tubby and wish him well, but the article gives him way to much of a pass on the recruiting failures that still plague UK. The 03-04, 05-06 classes sealed Tubby's fate before he knew it and the 07-08 class was not shaping up near well enough for Tubby to think he could turn anything around during what was going to be a do or die year for him. The article fails to reflect that while much of the early criticism was unfair, Tubby ultimately dug himself the hole he couldn't get out of.

Anonymous said...

If that is true about Donovan then that is very disappointing. It is obvious two years later that we need Donovan and he needs us.

I believe Barnhart is a solid AD with great values but he over emphasizes the importance of getting better in the non-major sports at UK like Volleyball, golf, etc than focusing more of his efforts on Basketball and Football.

- Steve Perry

Bill said...

How do you know that Mitch didn't actually do that with Tubby. And maybe Tubby was so loyal to his assistants that he chose to bolt for Minnesota. And don't think that the Minnesota thing was quick and spontaneous. That had been in the works for a while underneath the surface.

Anonymous said...

Name sources if they want to level accusations, come on, anybody can can type "FROM A FORMER UK PLAYER" or "FORMER UK ATHLETICS DEPARTMENT EMPLOYEE." See, I just did.

MCJ said...

I have heard many people complain about Mr. Barnhart's hiring in 2002, but I have not heard one single person name someone that would do a better job. Those who complain state that he is an "outsider" and that the University needed to hire an "insider." If this is the case, who should the University hired? If someone wants to complain, that is fine, but they should have a reasonable alternative to the situation.

Complaining just for the sake of complaining does no one any good.

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading your thoughtful posts on the the UK basketball situation, but I think you miss the mark here criticizing Dr. Todd and Mitch Barnhart. Remember Tubby was not fired, and would not have been fired. He resigned. I am a huge Tubby supporter-but I'm glad he decided to leave. Why? He had grown complacent in the job, and refused to do the sometimes unpleasant tasks associated with being a major college coach, e.g. shake up you staff if need be even if those folks are you friends, and grovel at the feet of 17 year kids. I don't know about Donvan's courtship by Barnhart-maybe Barnhart didn't play it well, but I think you can look back at what Donovan did over that spring and summer and reasonably conclude that he himself didn't know what he wanted to do. Barnhart could have played everything perfectly, and Billy D. might still be in Gainesville.

Apart from the current problems with the basketball program, the Athletic Department is in the best shape ever. The football program is the strongest it has been in 50 years (credit the administration for sticking with Rich Brooks when everyone wanted him fired in his second and third seasons), and other "minor" sports such as baseball, women's basketball and volleyball have been significantly upgraded. Finally, all this is occurring without the taint of corruption and cheating that has plagued the University since the point shaving scandal of the late 40s. I think you should credit both Dr. Todd and Mitch Barnhart for doing an outstanding job.

Keep up the good work and I look forward to finding out from here who Billy G.'s successor will be. . .