published Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Wiedmer: Gillispie’s fate could impact Bama, UGA

Until 8:57 Wednesday night, it appeared all but certain that Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Anthony Grant would soon accept the same position at Alabama.

And he yet might. Grant reportedly flew to Tuscaloosa on Wednesday to discuss the opening with Bama officials. Multiple media outlets are reporting that the Tide is willing to play the former Florida assistant at least $2 million a season.

But when Kentucky lost 77-67 to Notre Dame in the NIT quarterfinals just before 9 p.m. Wednesday, the entire dynamic of coaching openings at Alabama and Georgia may have changed.

Let the Wildcats fire second-year coach Billy Gillispie following UK’s 22-14 season and that job opening hold all others in the Deep South hostage.

For instance, what if Florida coach Billy Donovan — reportedly Kentucky’s first choice to succeed Tubby Smith at the close of the 2007 season — now decides he wants the unfathomable pressure of Big Blue hoops?

When Donovan spent a few hours as the Orlando Magic coach following the Gators' 2007 national title, UF athletic director Jeremy Foley was already in Richmond, Va., offering Grant the job. Then Billy D said thanks, but no thanks to the NBA and Grant remained at VCU.

But were Donovan to take the Kentucky post this time, Grant would almost assuredly dump the Tide for the Gators, where he was Donovan’s top assistant before accepting the VCU post.

What if Donovan stays put, however? Should Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford — the former UK star — return to his old Kentucky home, might Grant not be interested in all that T. Boone Pickens oil money that Okie State can throw his way?

Point is, wherever Kentucky looks for a new coach, IF it looks for a new coach, the chain reaction could dramatically alter the hires at Georgia, Alabama and beyond.

Of course, the very fact that Alabama is apparently willing to pay its next coach roughly twice what it paid former boss Mark Gottfried is the best sign yet that the SEC should never again have but three schools selected to the NCAA Tournament, as happened this season.

For $2 million a year, the Crimson Tide is bound to get a coach capable of routinely returning Bama to March Madness in a way not seen since the Man from Plaid, Wimp Sanderson, was stalking the Tide sideline.

Moreover, the SEC being what it is, there’s no way Georgia can let Alabama pay $2 million a year for a basketball coach and not dramatically elevate its own package.

As for who Georgia gets if Grant chooses the Tide, there are those who believe UGA athletic director Damon Evans may have hesitated and lost with Grant, who appeared destined to become a Dawg for much of the past month.

And the fact that Grant has reached the NCAA Tournament two of his first three seasons at VCU, that he beat Duke in the opening round two years ago and nearly knocked off UCLA last week, is certainly attractive.

But if I were Evans, I'd throw my millions at Tubby Smith, who once guided Georgia to the Sweet 16 and whose family would reportedly love to return to the sunny South from the frozen tundra of Minnesota.

(Yes, I know Smith says he's happy in Minnesota. But coaches are always happy until a better offer could make them happier, and many close to Smith insist he and wife, Donna, were never happier than during their two winters in Athens.)

Yet much of this may ultimately hinge on UK, much as basketball in the SEC almost always has. It’s difficult to believe that Big Blue would hand Gillispie a $6 million buyout in these tortured economic times, but Kentucky accepts mediocrity in basketball about the same way Alabama does in football. Winning is the only thing, and Gillispie's 40-27 UK record isn't acceptable by Wildcat standards.

After UK’s loss to Notre Dame, Gillispie said of his future, “I want to be back here. But when you work for another man, that’s another man’s choice.”

Until that man — in this case Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart — makes the choice to keep or cut Billy G, another man’s choice could easily keep open the basketball jobs at Alabama and Georgia.

E-mail Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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