December 2, 2009

Ghosts of coaches past

I wasn’t sad to see Billy Gillispie go. Frankly, I would have given him a lift to the airport.

Not long after Gillispie was heralded as the next great thing for Kentucky basketball, he proved to be a spoiled brat with an inflated ego of rock star proportion. Rarely was Billy G the paragon of professionalism. Instead, he behaved like an emotionally arrested man-boy who didn’t respect his talent, fame, school or the fans responsible for his multimillion-dollar gig.

Nevertheless, until almost the very end of his tenure at UK, Gillispie remained fairly popular, his appearances and autographs sought after. During his final days, a significant contingent of fans continued to defend him. When school officials fired him, some even disagreed with the athletic department’s resistance to pay off his contract.

On the other hand, now-former University of Louisville football coach Steve Kragthorpe is a good guy. Although unsuccessful on the field, he worked hard from day one. Kragthorpe appreciated his job and the fans. He tried to ingratiate himself into the community. Even on his darkest days, Coach K seemed to genuinely like the game he chose as his profession.

Yet he’s the guy fans booed. He’s the guy Athletic Director Tom Jurich got angry e-mails about, e-mails that protested his hiring before his first season even started.

Billy G replaced a coach who resigned because, although successful, he just wasn’t successful enough by Wildcat standards. Steve Kragthorpe plugged the gaping hole left by a Class-A jerk who, in the middle of the night, abandoned his team and this town a mere week after professing his loyalties. By all counts, Kragthorpe should have been seen as a savior.

Only he wasn’t. Louisville never warmed to Kragthorpe. Jurich said so himself in last Saturday’s press conference.

Possibility City aside, Louisville can be a tough burg for outsiders trying to fit in. Move here and expect to be confronted with cliques established since high school. Acceptance into some circles is possible, but to anyone who’s not a native, it becomes fairly clear, fairly soon that others are permanently off limits.

It’s hard to identify with someone like Kragthorpe, who traipses from city to city in search of better jobs and opportunities. With that kind of professional gypsy lifestyle comes a gamble most people can’t even fathom.

Sometimes a fit just doesn’t happen. A pairing, even when carefully calculated, just doesn’t take. In hindsight, you can often point to specific instances or decisions that went south, but barring particular catastrophe, sometimes there’s no real rhyme or reason. Sometimes things just don’t work out.

Jurich admitted he doesn’t know exactly why Kragthorpe, who was successful at the University of Tulsa, crashed and burned in Cardinal Country. The Xs and Os can indicate the tangible, but with Coach K, the problem was also intangible.

Multimillion-dollar coaches will always be subject to criticism, but in this case, distrust originated with his hire and remained throughout his tenure. It was almost as if Kragthorpe’s presence re-opened wounds from football coaches past, that every time the man spoke or marched onto a field he was accompanied by the ghosts of Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith.

Like the single girl leery of trusting any new man because she’s been hurt by his predecessors, Louisville from the outset resisted, and later resented, the man who reminded fans of the coaches who sinned before him.

Louisville also clings tightly to athletic tradition. It didn’t help that the new coach had his own way of doing things, and that he didn’t necessarily care if someone named Brohm was on his sideline.

All that shouldn’t have mattered as much as it did. And if Kragthorpe racked up wins, it wouldn’t have. Because in the end, all that matters is that a coach succeeds. Win and even the most colorful antics are ignored or forgiven.

But Steve Kragthorpe didn’t win no matter what he tried during three painful seasons. We can argue about contributing factors, what went right and wrong, the players he was able to recruit and the assistants he was forced to keep — but whatever the reasons, Kragthorpe didn’t gel with the job, didn’t mesh with the city.

The only thing left to do now is to wish him, and his successor, the best. 

Tagged: Francene |