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Kentucky, NC State basketball and the danger of “settling”

March 6, 2009
Kentucky fans, I feel your pain.

Jeff Goodman of Fox Sports wrote a column yesterday outlining the grief Billy Gillispie is catching from Kentucky fans as he struggles through his first two seasons at Kentucky.

Reading the first few paragraphs, it struck me how similar the Kentucky situation of today sounds like State’s of 2008 and 2009. A successful coach “run off”…new coach struggling mightily…old coach succeeding elsewhere.

Here’s Goodman’s piece, slightly modified. See if it doesn’t sound like something you’ve heard before:

Be careful what you wish for.

Kentucky N.C. State fans drove Tubby Smith Herb Sendek out of Lexington Raleigh despite a national title and 10 5 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

They wanted a guy who could recruit McDonald’s All-Americans.

Someone that could take them back to the promised land — where Big Blue The Pack was competing for national championships again.

Instead, they got Billy Clyde Gillispie Sidney Lowe.

At first, they accepted him like their first-born. It didn’t matter that he had only been a head coach for five years never been a college head coach and was a virtual unknown who had been pegged by arguably the one of the most storied program[s] in the history of college basketball.

Billy Clyde Sidney was theirs and they stood behind him — no matter what I or anyone else said. They went nuts when he was unveiled on Midnight Madness at the first open practice two years ago, emerging triumphant from behind four large curtains.

But now, after nearly two ho-hum seasons in the Gillispie Lowe Era, his act is starting to wear thin with the Wildcat Wolfpack Faithful.

It was as if Goodman were filling out the fields of a Herb/Lowe template article. “Be careful what you wish for.” Hasn’t that been the mantra of the media with respect to Herb and Sidney for the last two years?

The Herb articles have continued through this season, and were at their highest din a few weeks ago when the Sun Devils were knocking on the door of the top 10 and marching toward a Pac-10 title. Now that ASU is taking a March swoon — at the same time the Pack is showing some improvement — I doubt we’ll hear much bleating from the press on the matter for the time being (save for a miracle title of some sort for ASU).

But to the point, I have sympathy for Kentucky fans.

There comes a time with every fanbase, no matter how successful a coach may have been at one point, that it’s clear the coach has plateaued. Smith had reached that point with Kentucky. He’d won a national title early on in his tenure at Kentucky but it was clear that he was just Sweet 16/Elite Eight-good for the long haul, and that’s not good enough at Kentucky.

Herb plateaued here, as well, and (for the most part) we all knew it. Even worse, the media knew it — yet somehow for the media, a coach whose proven level of success is barely getting into the tournament was supposed to be good enough for State.

The same of Smith at Kentucky. He was good enough to win the SEC and get past the first weekend of the dance, but somehow that was supposed to be enough for Kentucky.

For the majority of fans, settling for a plateaued coach is not an option. It shouldn’t be. If the ultimate goal of every coach, team and fan is to win a championship and it’s become abundantly clear that it won’t happen under that coach’s watch, then what’s the point? Why even play the games? If everything is a prelude to an “eh” finish, then it’s time for a change.

State had reached that point.

So had Kentucky.

I don’t know if Gillispie is the answer at Kentucky. I don’t know if Sidney is the answer at State. But if there’s anything I can say to Kentucky fans, it’s that there’s absolutely no shame in wanting more out of your basketball program, and self-righteous media members should never convince you that “settling” is a viable option. Especially if Kentucky or State is on the front of your jersey — two programs with multiple NCAA titles and rich basketball traditions.

I would say give Gillispie his due time — five years. Sidney is turning things around in year three; perhaps Gillispie can show he can do it, too, in Lexington. But if five years pass and either one isn’t getting the job done and the fanbase clamors for another change, it’s unfair for the media to come after them for aspiring for more than simply “good enough.”

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