April 6, 2007

Kentucky snags Gillispie as new head man

LEXINGTON, Ky. -Kentucky's restless two weeks are over. Billy Gillispie is the Wildcats' new coach, and he insists the winningest school in college basketball history is on solid ground despite an early ouster from the NCAA tournament.

The former Texas A&M coach agreed to a seven-year contract to succeed Tubby Smith, university spokesman Jay Blanton said Friday. Financial terms weren't immediately available.

The architect of remarkable turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M, Gillispie doesn't think there's much work to be done with the Wildcats. Kentucky went 22-12 this season, losing to Kansas in the second round of the tournament.

"This program got turned around like 2,000 years ago and it's been turned around ever since," Gillispie said just before a campus rally. "Since they started putting those nets up there and used a round ball, they never needed a turnaround."

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart hired Gillispie after another Billy - Florida's Billy Donovan - decided Thursday to stay with the Gators after winning a second straight NCAA title. Texas' Rick Barnes also indicated he wasn't interested, but the job was never formally offered to anyone other than Gillispie.

Gillispie becomes Kentucky's sixth coach in the last 76 years after leading the Aggies to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 this year for the first time since 1980. Barnhart told a rally at Memorial Coliseum that the Wildcats hired a coach who matches the fans' passion for basketball.

"He understands the mantle that he's been given here at Kentucky," Barnhart said.

Smith spent a decade in the glare of the sport's brightest spotlight before bolting to Minnesota two weeks ago. He left the Wildcats after 10 seasons with four years left on his contract.

Gillispie is 100-58 in five seasons as a coach. In his last three years with the Aggies, he molded a longtime also-ran into a Big 12 power. Texas A&M went 27-7 this season.

His success made him a hot commodity. He was approached by Arkansas after Stan Heath was fired, but he decided to stay with the Aggies, agreeing to a $1.75 million contract.

The 47-year-old coach, however, never signed, and he didn't hesitate when Kentucky came calling. A&M athletic director Bill Byrne gave Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart permission to speak to Gillispie on Thursday night. By Friday morning the job was his.

Gillispie was an assistant under Bill Self at Tulsa and Illinois before coaching UTEP in 2002. He coached the Miners for two seasons, surviving a 6-24 season in 2002-03, then producing a 24-8 record the next year.

Texas A&M lured him in 2004, and Gillispie didn't waste time turning around a program that went winless in Big 12 play the year before his arrival. The Aggies made it to the NIT his first season and the NCAA tournament the next two.

Behind senior point guard Acie Law, the Aggies spent most of the 2006-07 season ranked in the top 10. They finished 13-3 in the Big 12.

Gillispie's finest moment came at Rupp Arena, guiding the Aggies to wins over Penn and Louisville in the opening rounds of this year's NCAA tournament. The Louisville game featured Smith's predecessor, Rick Pitino, coaching against Smith's successor, Gillispie, on Kentucky's home court.

Gillispie is the sixth Kentucky coach since 1931, when Hall of Famer Adolph Rupp began a 42-year reign that turned the Wildcats into a national power. Rupp won four national titles, with Joe Hall, Pitino and Smith adding one each.

Kentucky's failure to return to the Final Four since winning the title in Smith's debut season of 1997-98 was a sore spot for Wildcats fans accustomed to success.

Smith compiled a 263-83 record as the Wildcats' coach and his teams advanced at least to the second round of the NCAA tournament in each of his 10 seasons. But because the program lost 10 or more games under Smith five times, some critics labeled him "10-loss Tubby."

Kentucky went 22-12 this season and was seeded No. 8 for the second straight year, with the tournament outcome the same as well. Last year, top-seeded Connecticut knocked off the Wildcats in round two. This year, it was top-seeded Kansas.

Gillispie inherits a team facing a number of questions. Star center Randolph Morris signed with the New York Knicks. Also gone are Lukasz Obrzut, Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas. The top center now appears to be Jared Carter. The team returns three starting guards - freshman Derrick Jasper and juniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.

For more on the Kentucky Wildcats, visit CatsPause.com.


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