The Blue Mist

In Kentucky, a rapture is near. It’s 9:16 p.m., Tuesday, April 3, 2007. A dark and stormy night in the Commonwealth. Tornado warnings, warm air colliding with cool air, pavilions of cloud blotting out moonlight. A condo complex is struck by lightning in Louisville. Despite the turbulent skies, a twin-engine Cessna owned by Walter D. Yeager of Coleman, Michigan departed Gainesville, Florida at 9:00. A charter flight headed toward Kentucky airspace.

The Blue Mist has obtained this information from a website called flightaware.com, which gathers its information from FAA servers and includes radar data, flight plans, arrival and departure times. We, The Blue Mist, have three pilots and one air-traffic controller among our ranks, advising us that the maximum speed of a Citation X twin-engine Cessna, Mach 0.92, makes it the fastest business jet in the world. We’re considering headwinds and potential fueling stops to predict an exact arrival time. Make no mistake, The Mist is tracking every private and commercial flight flying from Gainesville, Florida to Lexington, Kentucky, the Mecca of college hoops.

The Mist thirsts for University of Kentucky basketball 365 days a year. As soon as one season ends—and ours ended just two weeks ago—we set our sights on the next. The Mist originates in Lexington, a city of 260,000, home to the winningest team in the history of college basketball. It spreads over the entire Commonwealth, the thoroughbred horse farms, the hills of Appalachia, the towns from Pikeville to Paducah. It rolls across state lines, widening out to become the Big Blue Diaspora. If the University of Kentucky has played in your city, you’ve probably witnessed The Mist. Hosted us for an NCAA tournament game? Twenty thousand of us descended upon you, clad in blue.

As the Cessna moves northward, our most popular internet message board—Rupp Rafters at CatsPause.com—has over 11,000 fans logged on. A thread devoted to tracking the plane, begun only an hour ago, has already accumulated 250 posts and 18,000 views. A Google search by a fan with the screen-name BlueSuave reveals that Walter D. Yeager, the Cessna’s owner, is president of a company called Coleman Electric. Unfortunately, BlueSuave can find no connection between Walter D. Yeager and the University of Kentucky. The Cessna’s tail number, however—N1UK—has whipped The Mist into a frenzy.

We believe that 41-year-old coaching sensation Billy Donovan, whose University of Florida Gators last night won their second straight national championship, is on that Cessna. We believe that UK athletics boosters, moneyed alumni tied into the horse racing business and untold other ultra-lucrative ventures, in concert with the university’s administration, are spiriting Donovan into the Commonwealth for secret negotiations. We hope and pray that Billy D—one of only four active coaches to win two national titles—will accept the honor of becoming Kentucky’s sixth head basketball coach in 76 years.

ESPN.com has reported that our athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, has put together a package for Billy D worth as much as $3.5 million per year. That would be a $1 million raise from what Donovan currently makes at Florida, more than any other college basketball coach. Such numbers, according to NCAA president Myles Brand, “raise the question of propriety for colleges and universities.” But The Mist would be proud to make Billy D the highest paid coach in the land.

If we speak of hiring and firing coaches and athletic directors and university presidents as if it’s “our” decision, “our” money—if there’s a possessiveness about us—please consider the money and support we invest in our program. The Mist—not the coaches and players—makes our program illustrious. We make it possible to build a state-of-the-art $35-million basketball practice facility, the best in the country. We sell out the 24,000 seats in Rupp Arena for every game, even preseason exhibitions against plebian teams like Athletes In Action. We sell out Rupp Arena for Midnight Madness, the first basketball practice of the year. We expect a lot in return.

On March 18, our former coach, Tubby Smith, lost to a heavily favored Kansas squad in the second round of the NCAA tournament, completing a 22-12 season.

Over ten seasons at Kentucky, Smith won one national title, five SEC regular season titles, and five SEC tournament titles. His peers consider him a man of high integrity and a great coach. In the Lexington community, he and his wife Donna did more than their share of charity work. He was accessible and unfailingly kind to fans. But because of his un-Kentucky-like habit of losing double-digit games in a season, which would be considered more than acceptable at almost any other program, he was dubbed “10-Loss Tubby.”

Tubby’s teams never played with enough élan to suit The Mist, but this year’s version looked even more plodding and disjointed than usual. On the bench, Tubby appeared perplexed, without tactical inspiration. The games began to repeat an excruciating storyline: fall behind early, claw back to within a few points in the closing minutes, only to lose. The team couldn’t even score on an out-of-bounds play. They lost to Vanderbilt—Vanderbilt!­—not once but twice. Were we headed for 15-Loss Tubby?

Tubby Smith was Kentucky’s first African-American head coach, which was considered progress for a program whose patriarch, Adolph Rupp—namesake of Rupp Arena and the message board Rupp Rafters—resisted integration well into the ’60s. Some observers had always maintained that “Tubby Bashing,” as it’s known, was racially motivated. But after nine years without a Final Four appearance—the longest drought in UK history—this argument came to seem less persuasive. The Mist wanted to win. Former Kentucky All-American Kenny “Sky” Walker, a black man who has considered Lexington home since arriving as a player in 1982, told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “I think there was a small percentage of fans who never really warmed up to him because of his color. But most fans I know genuinely did. Their criticisms of him, in the end, were about recruiting and records, not about race.” After 25 losses in two years, the criticisms were mounting, on the opinion pages and the call-in radio shows. FireTubby.com and DynastyDefenders.com received more hits than ever before.

On March 20, Smith stated on his final radio show of the season that he “expected to be back.” Disappointment permeated The Mist. We hoped that, at the very least, he’d fire some of his assistants.

On March 22, Smith announced that he was leaving Kentucky to become the coach at the University of Minnesota, a school with a mediocre basketball team and proud traditions in hockey and wrestling. When asked about his decision, he told the Lexington Herald-Leader, “You always want to be wanted.”

On March 24, Kentucky adjunct professor Richard Cheeks, who founded a group called Concerned Fans for UK Basketball, and who two seasons ago attempted to purchase a $1,700 ad in the student newspaper calling for Tubby’s dismissal (the ad was rejected), told the Herald- Leader, “I believe that Tubby Smith has taken this program from the pinnacle of the sport down to mediocrity. The program is now poised to begin its recovery.”

Cheeks said he had it on “good authority” that the job would go to Billy Donovan.

Much to The Mist’s frustration, Billy D and his Florida Gators were busy making their championship run in the NCAA tournament. The Mist (along with many members of the media) regarded the last few rounds of the tourney as a kind of nuisance. We knew that there was something much bigger at stake than a national title: the future of Kentucky basketball. But Billy D played it cool: “I know you have to ask me [about the Kentucky job],” he told the press, “but right now I’m here to coach my team and win a national championship.”

The Mist thought it possible, however, that Billy had up and left his preparations for the Regional Finals to drive fourteen hours north, from Gainesville to Lexington, in a rented Honda Accord for secret negotiations. We thought we knew this because we thought we were tracking him with GPS. Amid The Mist is a guy who works for a rental car company in Gainesville. Our man put up a real-time map in Rupp Rafters, charting the Honda’s progress along I-75. As it turned out, it wasn’t Billy in that Honda, though the graphic of Billy’s head looked a lot like Eddie Munster, which is pretty much what Billy Donovan looks like.

“I cannot control different things that are out there,” Donovan told the press at the Final Four. “It’s not my place to say anything or do anything, because that is someone else’s decision [to officially offer him the Kentucky job]. I love the University of Florida. I hope [Florida AD] Jeremy Foley will have me back.”

He also said, “If I was contacted by [UK], that would be something that I would have to think about.”

The Mist notes that Billy was wearing a blue tie at his press conference, practically batting his eyes at us. And some of us believe that Billy’s wife, Christine, was house shopping in Lexington. A realtor who knows a realtor who knows a realtor knows Christine picked out a multimillion-dollar mansion on a lovely country road called DeLong. The Mist also knows that coaches give “I’m happy at my current school” assurances to their administration, fans, and recruits all the time, while thoroughly intending to leave.

The Mist accepts that it’s a precarious time for Coach Donovan. He wouldn’t want to alienate his Florida players and fans so soon after the championship—even before the celebration and parade. The Mist grudgingly sympathizes with the Florida fans. We remember how Rick Pitino, the beloved coach who resurrected our program after a crippling NCAA probation in the mid-eighties, would have his annual flirtation with the NBA. By the time he left for the Boston Celtics after eight seasons, it was almost a relief. How could Florida fans possibly enjoy their championship while worrying that Billy D is going to leave?

This question is key to why The Mist believes that Billy will, in fact, leave. Gator fans are neither celebrating enough, nor are they worried enough. Wildcat fans care more—infinitely more—about winning basketball championships and Billy coming to Kentucky than Gator fans care about winning basketball championships and Billy leaving Florida. For whatever reason—the will of God, perhaps—Florida will always be, first and foremost, a state obsessed with football, while Kentucky will always be a state obsessed with basketball. Billy would mean so much more to us.

We further believe that Billy D. could be flying in for secret negotiations tonight, Tuesday, April 3, because we know he has a speaking engagement at Marshall University Wednesday night, the championship celebration on Friday, and he’s taking his family to Puerto Rico on Saturday, to celebrate his father’s 70th birthday. But The Mist needs Billy’s answer before he leaves for Puerto Rico, lest we implode. And we’re sorry, Billy, but Puerto Rico may have to wait until your dad turns 71. If you take the job, there’s recruiting to do before the spring signing period begins next week.

Some of us worry that Billy D has no intention of taking the Kentucky job: he’s parlaying our vacancy into a big pay raise from Florida, while our other potential coaching candidates, as inferior as they may be to Billy, start to feel ignored. But this Cessna flying into Lexington: it feels right. Suitably sexy. As if a Cessna flying in on a dark stormy night is the way this Donovan hire is supposed to go down. We can feel it in our bones: we’re going to get our man.

Many of the gelled-up talking heads on ESPN and other “news” outlets insist Billy will not leave the powerhouse program he has built at Florida for the pressure-cooker job at Kentucky. They say Billy’s father and in-laws live in Gainesville, and that he and Christine have invested heavily in a Catholic school attended by their young children. They say Billy lives in a beautiful home on the same street as Florida football coach Urban Meyer, forming an idyllic championship-coach enclave.

The Mist counters that Billy has coveted the Kentucky job ever since he left a promising career on Wall Street at twenty-four, to serve as an assistant at Kentucky under his old college coach at Providence, Rick Pitino. During the Golden Pitino Era, 1989-97, Kentucky went to three Final Fours and won a national title with a team widely considered to be one of the best ever. Pitino, who now coaches archrival Louisville, still calls his time at Kentucky “his years in Camelot.” Billy admits to having a “special place in his heart for Kentucky.” Some of us believe that Billy never sold his Lexington home in the Hartland subdivision when he departed in 1994 for his first head coaching job, expecting to one day return.

The Mist is also privy to this: Christine and daughter are competitive equestrian riders! They love the top-notch equestrian facilities around Lexington. The Mist once believed that Christine grew up in Lexington and yearned to return, until a local columnist informed us that she’s from New York.

The talking heads, especially Dick Vitale, claim Kentucky fans settle for nothing less than a national title every year. Some have said that no coach in his right mind would want any part of us. They suggest that Kentucky fans have nothing better to think about than basketball, implying, at least to our ears, that being a serious sports fan is a waste of time.

It’s just past 10:00 p.m., and several fans have declared, in Rupp Rafters, their intention to drive out to the airport to meet the Cessna. They want to welcome home our new coach. They want to be able to tell the story for years to come: April 3, 2007: the night they witnessed Billy D touch down in Kentucky.

With a group of fans and reporters waiting at Blue Grass Airport, N1UK touches down safely despite the turbulent skies. But the VIP passenger turns out to be a woman in her sixties, arriving in Lexington to attend the horse races at famed racetrack Keeneland.

Two days later, Billy D announces he’s staying at Florida. “It’s all about where you’re at in life and what’s going to make you happy,” he tells the press. “I’m happy here at Florida. I love the University of Florida.”

Some blame Mitch Barnhart for not being persuasive enough. Others believe Barnhart put the kibosh on a deal Billy was ready to accept, a covert deal boosters put together without Barnhart’s input, bruising his ego. Some think Billy didn’t want to risk his friendship with mentor Rick Pitino at Louisville—they would have played each other every year in one of the most intense rivalries in the country. Others say Billy D wanted to take the job but Christine didn’t want to move.

In the midst of The Mist’s abject disappointment—one of us calls a talk-radio show to say he can’t get out of bed, another suggests playing The Munsters song when Billy brings his Florida team to Rupp Arena—Barnhart moves quickly and decisively. He contacts hotshot Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie. At Barnhart’s Lexington home, the two men conduct secret negotiations through the night. On the morning of Friday, April 6, The Mist awakens to a new era: the Era of Billy G.

A press conference is held at high noon. The Mist huddles around televisions, computers, radios. Some of us ditch work to attend a pep rally on the university campus. When Billy G takes the mic, he gets all choked up. The forty-eight year-old looks handsome in his Kentucky-blue windbreaker. With a twinkle in his eye, he tells The Mist he’s just a country boy from Texas, and he never could’ve dreamt he’d wind up in the best job in college basketball. He’s ready to get to work: there’s recruiting to do to shore up next season’s roster. The crowd goes wild.

Women declare Billy G the most eligible bachelor in Kentucky. One of us reports in Rupp Rafters that Billy G was at McDonald’s talking to recruits on his cell phone, and that he put the phone down only once to eat. Another spots him on his phone at an Italian fast-food chain called Fazoli’s, and though The Mist is concerned about how much fast food Billy G. is consuming, we’re happy to know he’s hit the ground running. As Louisvilleblue writes in Rupp Rafters,

It’s amazing. For the last several weeks I was a basketcase. The program had no direction and IMO no future. And presto, I am relaxed and can once again sleep at night. I know the right man is in charge. Thanks Billy G, you have somewhat given me my life back.

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