By Andy Staples
March 26, 2009

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A Kentucky fan approached Wildcats forward Ramon Harris in the lobby of the South Bend Marriott early Wednesday afternoon and mentioned something about winning one for the Gipper.

"Who's the Gipper?" Harris asked.


In Notre Dame lore, Fighting Irish football star George Gipp made a deathbed request to coach Knute Rockne to invoke his memory to inspire the team. With Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie's employment status on life support Wednesday, the Wildcats couldn't win one for the Giller. With the exception of one brief second-half scare, Notre Dame rolled to a 77-67 win (BOX | RECAP). The Fighting Irish will head to New York for the NIT semifinals. Senior Luke Harangoody closed the current iteration of the Joyce Center with 30 points and 11 rebounds. The Wildcats, meanwhile, will head back to Lexington, where their coach may be fired after just two seasons.

Wednesday, Gillispie sat behind a table and straightened his tie. If an agreement has already been reached -- as has been rumored -- Gillispie didn't let on. "You're asking the wrong guy," Gillispie said when asked about his job status. "All I know is to go to work, recruit, coach."

That attitude ultimately will be held against Gillispie. He hasn't embraced the celebrity of being Kentucky's basketball coach the way Rick Pitino did. He hasn't carried himself with the quiet dignity predecessor Tubby Smith did. He practices on game day. He refuses to play a zone defense, even when man-to-man doesn't work. His substitution patterns make sense only to him.

Of course, none of this would have mattered had the Wildcats lost Thursday in the Sweet 16 instead of Wednesday in the NIT. Methods don't get called into question when the team wins. Nor do administrators and boosters worry about how a coach "fits" into the culture of the athletic department. They only worry when the team missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

The head football coach at Alabama faces a similar set of challenges as the head coach at Kentucky. Yet Nick Saban is not cuddly. He doesn't enjoy schmoozing. He won't switch to a 4-3 if his 3-4 doesn't work. No one cares. Why?

Because Saban wins.

Gillispie is in this mess not because he was rude to ESPN sideline reporter Jeanine Edwards on two separate, bizarre occasions or because of his hatred for the zone. Had Gillispie's team won the SEC instead of finishing fourth in the Eastern division, he could have cursed out Edwards on live television and fans would have rushed to defend him. Instead, the two Edwards interviews will be used as evidence if Kentucky officials choose to swing the ax as SI's Seth Davispredicted last week.

Earlier this month, Kentucky president Lee Todd told the Lexington Herald-Leader that athletic director Mitch Barnhart would evaluate Gillispie's performance at season's end. It should be noted that Barnhart is the same athletic director who spared Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks after Brooks went 9-25 in his first three seasons. Since, Brooks has led the Wildcats to three-consecutive bowl games and won them all.

But Kentucky football fans don't expect much. They're fine with the Liberty Bowl, which is the football equivalent of the NIT quarterfinals. Kentucky basketball fans expect Final Fours and national championships. That's why Wednesday night the Cat's Pause, the site that covers Kentucky, said a record 13,500 logged on to its free message board. In that way, Kentucky hoops fans are more like the fans who called for the head of the crewcut-wearing coach sitting in the stands at the Joyce Center on Wednesday. Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis probably understands better than anyone how Gillispie feels. Faced with a similar situation this offseason, Notre Dame's administration gave Weis another year.

Had Weis been fired, Notre Dame would have had to pay a monster buyout. It's not clear how much Kentucky would have to pay Gillispie, considering he has yet to sign his contract. Gillispie has worked off the Memorandum of Understanding he signed April 6, 2007. Gillispie's contract calls for a $6 million buyout if he is fired after his second season.

After the loss, Gillispie told his players to give the brutal truth if reporter asked them a question. No one ripped him. Even freshman guard DeAndre Liggins, who has had his scrapes with Gillispie over playing time, took the high road. "I don't blame him," Liggins said. "I blame myself."

Forward Patrick Patterson said his plan at the moment is to return to Kentucky. That could change. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound sophomore is an NBA prospect. So is guard Jodie Meeks, who led the Wildcats and the SEC in scoring this season. Wednesday, Meeks gave Gillispie critics even more fuel when he took only three shots in the first 27 minutes. After that, Meeks finally started shooting and scored 18 of his 21 points. Meeks said he hadn't thought about the future. Both Meeks and Patterson said they'd heard nothing about Gillispie's job status. "It would be real nice," Patterson said, "if they would just go ahead and say what's going to happen."

Gillispie built winners in his previous stops at UTEP and Texas A&M. He won or shared conference coach of the year honors five times. Despite having two of the nation's best players, Gillispie couldn't find a way to make Kentucky win this season.

If Gillispie gets canned, that's why. Forget all the other stuff. In the final analysis, his job was to win, and he didn't win enough. Wednesday, Gillispie said the only judgment that matters to him is the one he'll get from the big athletic director in the sky. "There's only one judgment I'll ever be concerned about," he said. "I hope I pass that judgment. I'm really proud that's the only judgment that's ever had a real effect on me. I hope I pass that one with flying colors."

As happy Notre Dame fans streamed out of the Joyce Center and headed for the Linebacker Lounge, Kentucky's pep band, cheerleaders and a few hundred die-hards remained. They all held one finger aloft. The band played My Old Kentucky Home.

It sounded like a funeral dirge.

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