With Donovan Out Of The Picture, Wildcats Move On

Thursday, April 5th 2007, 2:16 pm
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- It's time for Plan B at Kentucky.

Billy Donovan's decision to remain at Florida rather than take the vacant head coaching job at Kentucky left the field wide open Thursday in the search for Tubby Smith's replacement.

Two weeks after Smith's abrupt departure for Minnesota, the coaching chair at college basketball's all-time winningest program remains open, leaving one of the nation's most ardent fan bases squirming even as Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart asked for patience.

"We have had productive conversations with various individuals over the last two weeks, and it's obvious that there are a number of outstanding coaches who could succeed at Kentucky," Barnhart said. "I'm confident we'll find the right man."

Who that man will be is anybody's guess.

Within hours, names from all over the college basketball landscape were being bandied about: Texas coach Rick Barnes, Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Memphis coach John Calipari.

All four are proven winners. Izzo won a national title with the Spartans in 2000. Barnes and Calipari have led teams to the Final Four while Gillispie has turned the Aggies from also-rans to contenders in just three years.

Barnes said Thursday he won't talk about the Kentucky opening.

"I've never talked about jobs, and I'm not going to do it now," Barnes said. "When you're linked with jobs, I think it's a credit to your program, to the work you've done. I consider that a compliment, but I'm never going to get into discussing jobs."

Texas has not received any "formal" inquiries about Barnes, according to spokesman Scott McConnell.

Izzo was at The Masters on Thursday and could not be reached for comment, according to his secretary.

Memphis and Texas A&M, meanwhile, have worked to keep Calipari and Gillispie on campus.

Calipari received a contract extension through 2012 after leading the Tigers to a 33-4 record this season, including a 16-0 mark in Conference USA.

Gillispie, who took the Aggies to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 this year for the first time since 1980, agreed in principle to a contract last week that will pay him $1.75 million annually. Texas A&M spokesman Colin Killian said he's not sure if Gillispie has signed the new deal.

There appeared to be no front-runner, however, meaning the process could take awhile.

"Obviously, finding the right coach is more important than finding the next coach quickly," Barnhart said. "Patience remains a priority as we continue to identify the best individual to lead the Big Blue Nation."

Whoever it will be, it won't be Donovan, whose ties to the school's renaissance as an assistant coach under Rick Pitino made him an appealing pick.

Barnhart received permission to talk to Donovan late Wednesday night, but by Thursday morning, Donovan had decided to stay at the school where he's won back-to-back national championships.

"Kentucky's a great program, great tradition," Donovan said. "Mitch is a terrific athletic director. They have great, great fans, but I felt that at this time in my life, the best place for me was the University of Florida."

Their first pick gone, the Wildcats will need to move swiftly if they want to have a new coach in place before the spring signing period begins on April 11.

Huntington (W.Va.) High forward Patrick Patterson and Bellaire (Texas) guard Jai Lucas were being heavily recruited by Smith before his departure.

Both players said they were still considering Kentucky at last week's McDonald's All-American game but would wait until the Wildcats hired a new coach before making any decisions.

Whoever Barnhart hires will have to stabilize a program that's struggled -- by its lofty standards anyway -- during the last few years.

Kentucky hasn't made it to the Final Four since winning the national championship in 1998, the longest drought between national semifinal appearances in school history. The Wildcats went 22-12 this season, losing to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament and have lost at least 10 games in five of their last eight seasons.