March 27, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -Billy Gillispie is out as Kentucky's basketball coach, ending a tumultuous two years at the head of college basketball's all-time winningest program.

The university said Friday it will announce "a change in the head coaching position of the men's basketball program" at a 4:30 p.m. news conference.

University president Lee T. Todd Jr. and athletic director Mitch Barnhart are expected to attend.

Gillispie was 40-27 at Kentucky and had a seven-year deal, which stipulated he would receive a $6 million buyout if he were let go after two seasons.

He led the Wildcats to a 22-14 record this season and Kentucky failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. The Wildcats season ended Wednesday with a loss to Notre Dame in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals.

When asked after that loss 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."

Gillispie's job security appeared to be in jeopardy after the Wildcats stumbled down the stretch, losing eight of their final 11 regular season games to squander a perfect 5-0 start in Southeastern Conference play. A quarterfinal loss to LSU in the SEC tournament followed, relegating Kentucky to the NIT.

Gillispie arrived with great fanfare to replace Tubby Smith two years ago. Hundreds of supporters crowded the floor of Memorial Coliseum during a pep rally - one with a sign that read "Billy G: Our Savior" - following a whirlwind negotiation that was sealed in the middle of the night at Barnhart's house.

The deal was put together so quickly that Gillispie signed a memorandum of understanding instead of the actual contract. Barnhart said he expected a formal contract to be signed shortly after the hire. The document has never been signed, and the topic became part of a running joke for Gillispie, who seemed nonplussed about it whenever asked.

Regardless, the coach who engineered turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M was quickly embraced by one of college basketball's most ardent fan bases, who won over by his notorious work ethic and homespun demeanor.

Gillispie said at the time he knew what he was getting into. How could he not? The practice floor at the Joe Craft Center where he held his introductory press conference was lined with banners highlighting Kentucky's seven national titles.

"I like expectations," he said that day. "My most favorite year (at Texas A&M) was (2007) when we had pressure. And that expectation, it either drives you or it diminishes your ability, and my ability isn't diminished by expectations."

The honeymoon, however, was seemingly over before it began.

Kentucky lost to Gardner-Webb on its home floor during the second game of Gillispie's tenure, beginning a roller coaster two years that failed to produce any consistency on the floor or any real sense of calm off it.

There's little doubt the confessed "workaholic" gave everything he had to the program. The coach who found a way to work the word "toughness" into nearly every sentence expected it out of his players. He raised eyebrows for his energetic walkthroughs during game days, a habit he refused to break regardless of how well or poorly he felt his team was playing.

Making sense of his sometimes erratic substitution patterns proved difficult for both players and fans. He started walk-on Mark Coury almost the entire season in 2007-08 even if it meant Coury played just a handful of minutes at the start of the game before heading to the bench for the rest of it.

Gillispie defended himself by saying the players who practiced the hardest would be the ones who saw the floor during games, a noble sentiment if one that seemed to puzzle fans who wondered why the team's supposed best players weren't in the game at crucial moments.

That sense of stubbornness prevented him from connecting with some of the 20,000-plus assistant coaches who packed Rupp Arena every fall, some of whom waited anxiously next to a radio table following home games hoping to get a glimpse, a handshake or an autograph from the state's highest paid and mostly highly visible employee.

A sometimes prickly relationship with the media didn't help matters. A couple of run-ins with a female TV reporter during brief halftime interviews this year struck some as inappropriate, and Gillispie could be contentious at times.

He claimed he wasn't hired to be a celebrity, but to win games. He struggled at both, at least by Kentucky standards.

The Wildcats went 22-14 in his second season, tied for the second-most losses in the program's 106-year history. Kentucky failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 17 years and saw its season end with a 10-point loss to Notre Dame in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals.