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.