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Thursday, March 26, 2009
Gillispie's status at Kentucky unclear

ESPN.com news services

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Billy Gillispie says he's positive Kentucky is close to becoming a "great" team.

Whether the embattled second-year coach gets a chance to find out is anybody's guess.

A day after Kentucky's season ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals, Gillispie remained committed to his job even though he can't even say for sure whether he will be back.

Billy Gillispie
Billy Gillispie's job at Kentucky could be in danger.

School officials have been quiet about Gillispie's job status after the Wildcats tumbled through the second half of the season to finish 22-14, tied for the second-most losses in the program's 106-year history.

University president Lee Todd said recently Gillispie's position would be evaluated at the end of the season. Todd attended the loss to Notre Dame but did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press on Thursday.

Athletic director Mitch Barnhart was planning to meet with Gillispie, though the coach said during his radio show Thursday night no meeting had been scheduled.

In response to an Internet report Gillispie is going to be let go, the University of Kentucky issued the following statement Thursday night: "UK men's basketball coach Billy Gillispie has not been fired. There have been no meetings between Gillispie and UK officials today, and there is no scheduled press conference for tomorrow."

When asked after the loss to Notre Dame if he expected to be back, Gillispie said the decision wasn't up to him.

"You're asking the wrong guy," he said. "All I know is to go to work, recruit, coach and that's what I did, that's what I've done and that's what I'll continue to do."

Just maybe not at Kentucky.

Gillispie is 40-27 two seasons into a seven-year deal with Kentucky that pays him a base salary of $2.3 million annually. Averaging 20 wins a year is respectable to most places. He knows most places, however, aren't the home of college basketball's all-time winningest program.

"A lot of teams would be happy with 22 [wins] but not always around here when it's not the right 22," Gillispie said during his radio show.

Former Kentucky star Tayshaun Prince, now a starter for the Detroit Pistons, knows the feeling. The Wildcats had three straight 10-loss seasons during Prince's four-year career from 1999 to 2003.

"That's one of the toughest jobs in America," Prince said. "One thing about our [Kentucky] fans is they want to see some things right away and their last 10 games [this year] were kind of a slump."

Kentucky's 20 regular-season wins weren't enough to get a bid into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. The Wildcats imploded down the stretch, losing eight of their final 11 regular-season games despite having two of the top players in the Southeastern Conference in center Patrick Patterson and guard Jodie Meeks.

Gillispie took most of the blame for Kentucky's struggles, but not all of them. He pinned a two-point loss to LSU on an unnamed player he inserted into the game sometime in the second half. His seemingly random substitution patterns seemed to mystify the 24,000 assistant coaches who pack Rupp Arena every winter.

A sometimes testy relationship with the media hasn't helped. He endured a couple high-profile run-ins with a female TV reporter during the season, not exactly the kind of behavior some expected from the state's highest-paid employee.

Though he's said his job is to win games, not be a celebrity, coaching at Kentucky means more than having a tireless work ethic or making the NCAA tournament.

Former Kentucky coaches Rick Pitino and Joe B. Hall became beloved for their ability to win while serving as an ambassador for both the state and the university.

Doing both isn't easy, but it's sometimes required.

"That's a fine line," said Hall, who now co-hosts a daily talk show with former Louisville coach Denny Crum. "There have been coaches before that won that weren't good ambassadors and had long tenures. I guess it's the combination of the two."

If Gillispie gets another chance has become a hot topic throughout the Bluegrass.

A popular fan message board had more than 16,000 people jamming the site following the loss to Notre Dame. Several news outlets in the state posted polls on their Web sites Thursday on whether Gillispie should stay. Most were split down the middle on Gillispie's future.

The players, however, seem united behind their coach. Patterson said he plans to return for his junior season and help the Wildcats make a run at the NCAAs with Gillispie at the helm.

"I firmly believe coach, he's still going to be here," Patterson said.

Not everyone agrees. Several callers to Gillispie's radio show told him they hoped he'd move on. He replied with a curt "OK" before moving on to the next topic.

Asking Gillispie to leave could be expensive for the university. Buying out his contract would cost around $6 million, and that doesn't include the millions the Wildcats would have to lavish upon a new hire.

Kentucky made overtures to Florida coach Billy Donovan two years ago, and some parts of the fan base would jump at the chance to lure Pitino back from archrival Louisville.

Gillispie, however, said during his radio show he's simply trying to get back to work.

"Hopefully I can make something good out of something that might be challenging," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.