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Honesty, Trust and College Basketball Coaches

By Bill Peterson · April 11th, 2007 · Sports
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Jerry Dowling



Whenever a college football or basketball coach tells you the sky is blue, be very careful with the information. Check the sky yourself and see if it looks blue. Ask three or four other people for confirmation. Don't just trust it outright.

Many a reporter has written gibberish on the words of college coaches, especially concerning their professional intentions. Sports generates obfuscation and double talk because it's so much about winning that participants often resort to cheating. College sports adds a layer of duplicity when liars and cheats speak the pretense about guiding boys to prosperous adulthood through education.

We shouldn't suggest that sports is unique in its passion for dishonesty, but we should allow that it's especially irksome coming from coaches. Sports is justified, in large part, as a bastion of fairness and merit. A word, sportsmanship, has been coined because those attributes are allegedly essential to athletic competition.

When coaches who are presumed to teach those attributes prove themselves hypocritical, we cringe.

We generalize about coaches being dishonest, knowing, as always, that generalizations admit exceptions. But they are exceptions. When they seem to arise, fans are wise to keep the belief at arm's length.

So one is cautious as he notes the honesty of college basketball coaches in their latest migrations. Between Bob Huggins, Billy Gillispie, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino, we heard not a single outright lie about their intentions in the last month.

One coach, Creighton's Dana Altman, accepted the position at Arkansas for a day, then went back. He just changed his mind, which is different from lying.

The cycle began this time around when Tubby Smith answered inquiries from the University of Minnesota by accepting its position as head basketball coach. Smith knew the snow and cold in Minnesota doesn't match the tempest in Kentucky as heavy weather for a basketball coach, so he settled in the safe harbor.

Kentucky representatives turned to Donovan as he took his Florida Gators down a second straight national championship path. Throughout the tournament run, Donovan consistently answered all questions about Kentucky by saying he absolutely needed to concentrate on his Florida players at the moment.

If the talk about UK ever distracted Donovan, one wouldn't have known it as he cut down the nets following his championship victory in Atlanta.

Donovan made curious assertions that he wanted to stay in Florida "as long as they will have me," as if Florida would dismiss a basketball coach who succeeded where so many others failed. Within a week of winning the national title, he announced he's staying in Florida.

Donovan has found a home, it seems. His parents and in-laws have moved to the Gainesville area, and he's invested in the community.

Apparently, Kentucky's search never turned to Pitino, who consistently said he was happy at Louisville. Next up, Texas Coach Rick Barnes announced he would not be a candidate at UK.

Barnes has a good thing going at Texas. The living in Austin is good, the University of Texas is flush with money, the facilities are up to date, Dallas and Houston raise so much homegrown talent that top players can leave after a year and the team doesn't miss a beat, the chance to win it all is always at hand and, yet, pressure to win is light because Austinites and UT alums just go along for the ride.

Thus, Kentucky turned to one Billy Clyde Gillispie, kind of an odd duck. Gillispie needed only three years to build a big winner at Texas A&M, which counts as an extraordinary achievement. Before his arrival, A&M basketball didn't even qualify as a joke. It was a complete non-entity.

A&M is something of a secret society built and maintained by tradition and ritual, little of which ever included basketball. If you weren't born with A&M in your DNA, the place makes no sense. Aggies are lovely people, but they're Aggies and you're not. College Station is an armpit of a town that looks hideous in sunlight and tolerably bland in the rain.

Gillispie, who made his name as a recruiter for Bill Self at Illinois, somehow attracted basketball talent to College Station, where the nightlife could cure alcoholism.

Understandably, Gillispie made quite a hit in College Station, showing a generation who never heard of Shelby Metcalf the fun of winning at basketball. After Gillispie took A&M to the Sweet 16 this year, A&M negotiated a contract extension worth $1.75 million per year.

But Gillispie never signed it. The Kentucky job was open, his name made the rounds as a candidate if Donovan declined and Gillispie wanted to see how it would play out.

For a gym rat like Gillispie, UK truly is a dream because of the intensity and not despite it. While at UK, Pitino often said it was a great place to coach because the passion of the fans matched his own.

A day after Donovan announced he would stay in Florida, Kentucky introduced Gillispie as its new coach. Gillispie will work hard, recruit like a fiend and win at Kentucky. The only question is his playing style.

His A&M teams played low-scoring games. Gillispie told the media in Lexington that he'll run if he recruits the athletes to do it. We'll see.

Coaches coach what they coach. If Gillispie coaches a running game at Kentucky, it will be new to him. Don't count on it.

The Kansas State faithful is upset that Huggins took off after one year there to coach at West Virginia, his alma mater. But one had to figure he'd be a short timer at Kansas State for two reasons. One, Huggins signed for a $100,000 buyout, so it would be easy for him to leave. Two, Manhattan, Kan., isn't in his part of the country.

Huggins was born in Morgantown, W.V., graduated from West Virginia and coached most of his career in Ohio. Suddenly, he's a West Virginia/Ohio guy in his early 50s working in Kansas.

Maybe he thought it would be fine. And maybe the chance to go home a year later made too much sense. Can't blame him.

The question about Huggins' intentions never came up because the West Virginia situation was resolved so quickly. John Beilein left West Virginia for Michigan on April 3, and Huggins took the West Virginia job on April 5.

Like all coaches, Huggins made the usual pronouncements about doing what's needed to make Kansas State a winner at his introductory press conference. His recruitment of players there implies an intention to be their coach.

That's not going to happen at Kansas State. Honesty has its limits, even when coaches are being honest.

 
 
 
 

 

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