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Billy Gillispie's Fate Could Send Big Ripples Throughout the SEC and the Footprint

Posted: Mar 26, 2009

Mark Wiedmer at the Chattanooga Time Free Press has it right.  If Billy Gillispie gets fired, it will create a coaching shakeup around the Swampland Footprint.  

First, let's address Gillispie and why he is likely to be fired.  This situation looks eerily similar to like Mike Shula's demise at Alabama.

Like Gillispie, Shula didn't seem like a likely candidate to be fired when he was.  In both cases, the respective coach had taken over historically great programs that had been on a downward trend.  Both also seemed to have earned some honeymoon time.  However, Shula's was short, and the signs seem to point to Gillispie's being even shorter.

The other reason this reminds us of the Shula situation is that Kentucky will not mess around replacing him.  If they decide Gillispie is gone, they will go hard after their number one choice and offer him the moon just as Alabama did with Nick Saban.  After all, basketball is to Kentucky what football is to Alabama.  

(For those that think Gillispie might get a reprieve, this piece shows how Kentucky fans see the current situation.  Right now, they see themselves behind arch rival Louisville (coached by their old coach, Rick Pitino).  Even worse, they see themselves as behind other regional basketball schools like Western Kentucky and Xavier.  Like Mike Shula's winless record against Auburn, this is unacceptable to Kentucky hoops fans.)

There is a bigger issue for the SEC when it comes to Kentucky.  They are the conference's standard bearer.  Without the Wildcats anchoring the conference as a nationally elite team, the SEC loses respect throughout the college hoops world.  The conference poor showing (three teams only) and lackluster seeding showed this lack of respect.

The bottom line is that the SEC needs Kentucky to be amongst the annual elite alongside UNC, Duke, UCLA, Memphis, UConn, and, of course, Louisville.

So, who's on the top of their list?  Although Wildcat fans dream of the idea of stealing Pitino back, that won't happen.  Been there, done that for Pitino.  However, another untouchable may be possible - Billy Donovan, the current Gator coach and former Pitino assistant at Kentucky.

Somehow or another, the bloom has been off the rose since Donovan won back to back titles in Gainesville.  First, he took the Orlando Magic job, only to rescind that deal to return to Florida.  Since that point, the Gators have underachieved and the Orlando Magic have become one of the NBA's top teams.

Florida AD Jeremy Foley may cry foul at the idea of Donovan moving on within the SEC East, but has Donovan really looked like a $3.5 million a year coach in the last two years?  Right now, the Gators are behind both FSU and possibly Miami in hoops.  Donovan's recent swoon also coincides with the Tebow/Meyer era which has firmly put hoops back into afterthought status in Gator Nation.

To be blunt, Donovan's value to Kentucky is far more than his value to the Gators.  Donovan has dug himself a hole in Florida whereas he would be seen as an instant savior in Lexington.  Considering that Kentucky might even give him a raise over his currently huge contract, Donovan would have even more reasons ($$) to make a switch.

So, if Donovan leaves, shifts and changes begin.

First, VCU's Anthony Grant, Alabama's current #1 choice to replace the fired Mark Gottfried, would likely go to Florida.  A former Donovan assistant at Florida, Grant was already on his way there to replace Donovan before he reneged on the Magic job.  He seems to prefer Gainesville over Tuscaloosa based on the fact that he has yet to accept the Tide's standing offer.

That would leave Alabama searching again for a head coach.  Let's also not forget that Georgia and Virginia currently have openings within the Footprint.  Grant's name has been discussed in all three openings, so his taking over the Gators from Donovan would leave a lot of teams in the lurch.

Of course, Donovan could stay at Florida which means that Travis Ford, a Kentucky alum, becomes the likely top choice.  Ford's name sits alongside other Big 12 coaches (Oklahoma's Jeff Capel and Missouri's Mike Anderson) who have also been rumored as possibilities at Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia.

Phew!  Are you getting the point now?  Kentucky likely intends to throw big cash around to show that they're the SEC's top dog.  Other SEC programs intend to raid the Big 12, and Virginia thinks its ACC credentials can get them a coaching star as well.

We shall see if the current economy creates any sense of pause.  We doubt it.  All of these programs are coming off of hiring "up and comers," and they haven't worked out.  Georgia has already announced that they intend to make a deeper investment in their basketball program this time around.

Our guess is that the SEC should stop looking at the Big 12.  Oklahoma and Missouri have already shown that they will pay whatever is necessary to keep their football coaches.  We don't see them letting their currently successful basketball coaches walk away over money.  Ford may leave Oklahoma State for Kentucky, but he wouldn't likely move for anything less than that kind of elite job.

Of course, our old friend Tubby Smith's name is coming up again.  Tubby had a short, but successful stint at Georgia before going to Kentucky and winning an NCAA title.  Despite that title and a .760 winning percentage, he resigned under pressure leading Kentucky to Gillispie.  He claims to be loyal to Minnesota, his current school, but some sources say he'd rather head back South.  If that's the case, either Alabama or Georgia (in a curtain call) would love to have him roaming the sidelines.

Rumors like this make it awfully interesting.  Tonight's NCAA Sweet 16 slate alone could provide some answers with the aforementioned Mike Anderson taking his Missouri Tigers against Memphis.  Additionally, Jay Wright of Villanova and Sean Miller of Xavier play tonight to either help their teams advance to the Elite Eight or to become the latest additions to the coaching rumor mills.

Additionally, Gillispie will likely find himself to be a candidate if he is indeed fired.  Like Tubby's resurgence since leaving Kentucky, Gillispie's failure with the Wildcats won't be held against him by others.  Would Georgia or Alabama take a flyer on him?

In the end, only one thing seems sure - John Calapari is going nowhere despite the dreams of Alabama fans.  He has Memphis teed up just the way he wants it.

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