Leader of anti-Smith campaign calls new hire 'a grand slam'By Jerry Tipton / herald-leader staff writer Jerry Tipton
Richard Cheeks, the adjunct professor who made waves by calling for then-Kentucky coachTubby Smith to resign three years ago, is a happy fellow these days.
"How could any UK fan not be happy today?" he said last week.
Cheeks approved of the hiring of Billy Gillispie, remains puzzled by Gillispie's firing after two seasons and now thinks Kentucky basketball has a bright future.
"In my opinion, Gillispie is an upgrade from Tubby Smith," Cheeks said. "But this is who they should have hired two years ago. Calipari is a home run. It's a grand slam home run. ...
"He's been there. He's done it. He has instant name recognition. He has instant credibility in the basketball community with players and recruiting."
Cheeks took notice of former Calipari player Marcus Camby admitting to taking $28,000 from agents, of UMass being stripped of recognition for making the 1996 Final Four, of questions about player discipline.
"I have had some concerns, as any fan might," Cheeks said. "But I believe the NCAA would have pursued John Calipari if John Calipari was dirty. To say he's dirty or somewhat guilty is a stretch."
To review: Cheeks served as spokesman for a loosely configured group calling itself, somewhat redundantly, "Concerned Fans for UK Basketball." During the 2006-07 season, the group tried to place an advertisement in the UK student newspaper, The Kernel, calling for Smith to resign for the good of the program.
Smith resigned after the season and took the coaching job at Minnesota, a move he said reflected his wish to go where he was wanted. The Concerned Fans disbanded.
That Smith has led a startling turnaround in Minnesota basketball, punctuated by a bid to this year's NCAA Tournament, made little impression on Cheeks.
"I think that's all smoke and mirrors," he said.
When reminded that Minnesota beat Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, on a neutral floor early in the season, Cheeks said, "I was not impressed." Louisville's play throughout the season did not justify a No. 1 seed, he said.
"Tubby's a good coach, but he's not a great coach. He'll never ever be able to grasp the brass ring again.
"No player he ever coached and recruited ever played in the Final Four. And for Kentucky, that's not acceptable. That was the whole point."
With Smith's players advancing to the 2003 and 2005 region finals representing failure, the conversation shifted to Gillispie.
Cheeks noted his mixed emotions, which include empathy.
"I think he's a good coach, and I think he had the program headed in the right direction," Cheeks said. " ... It's sad. I feel sorry for the guy.
"If he was fired because of basketball performance issues, not winning enough, then I don't think he had enough time to really build his program. ... I think he got a raw deal."
The official reason cited by UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and school president Lee Todd — that Gillispie was a "bad fit" — is a vague concept for Cheeks to grasp.
"Bad fit doesn't really justify firing," he said. "It might justify a mutual parting of ways. I don't think bad fit necessarily justifies firing for cause."
UK fans, whom Barnhart and Todd cited as a crucial foundation for the basketball program, deserve a candid explanation for Gillispie's firing, Cheeks said.