by Heather C. Watson
I was driving across Southeastern Kentucky late last week, listening to radio coverage of the Friday the Thirteenth massacre, when I first heard Coach Gillispie’s claim that he was unaware that the Head Coach position at the University of Kentucky included a public figure component and that, as such, his private life was off limits. Billy Clyde even claimed, according to radio stalwarts Dave Baker and Oscar Combs, that Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart never mentioned a public figure role during the interview process. Two minutes later, when Dave and Oscar cut to commercial, Gillispie himself came on the radio with a PSA.
A Public-freaking-Service-Announcement. In which he identified himself as “Coach Billy Gillispie,” then told all of us Kentucky fans to not drink and drive.
Hmm…someone who uses his position of influence and visibility to tens of thousands of people in order to sway public opinion. Sounds a lot to me like a public figure.
As early as November 2007, a few brief months into Gillispie’s coaching tenure, the Courier-Journal quoted UK’s then-media director Scott Stricklin as saying that the coach had been inundated with media requests, and had already lent his endorsement to at least a dozen print, radio, and television ads. Stricklin went on to tell the Courier that this “rock star” status is part of the UK coaching job.
Gillispie has since endorsed cars, restaurants, and countless other local businesses, again using his local celebrity to influence our tastes and brand preferences. He even told WKYT this fall that he didn’t mind living in the “spotlight” under which Kentucky fans placed him. He’s a “rock star,” is paid handsomely for celebrity endorsements, and lives in the spotlight, but he doesn’t consider himself a public figure?
The 8.7 percent of the Kentucky workforce that were unemployed in January 2009 were certainly not in the position to perform celebrity endorsements. Nor were most other Kentuckians holding an education degree similar to that which Coach Gillispie possesses; while those folks were earning a median income of $30,000, Gillispie was purchasing a 12,000 square-foot Jessamine County home for $1.45 million dollars.
(The median home price in Jessamine County is in the mid-$200,000 range, and most Jessamine homes have never been profiled in the Herald’s Living section).
The Head Coach’s life is one of luxury, celebrity and opportunity that is unimaginable to few residents of the Commonwealth.
Coach Gillispie has certainly enjoyed job perks and financial remuneration unimaginable to the average Kentuckian.
By the very nature of his job and lifestyle, he will receive a public figure’s level of media scrutiny.
To argue otherwise is petulant and ridiculous.
The “I’m not a role model” argument was tiresome when NBA star Charles Barkley made that famous proclamation in the early ‘90s. Barkley, with his unapologetic bad behavior, was not entrusted with mentoring and coaching college students, nor was his salary provided by a public land-grant university. Coach Gillispie, on the other hand, through the very act of accepting the Kentucky coaching position, assumed the life of a public figure. By continuing the tradition of the Kentucky Coach’s countless media endorsements, he has further promoted his own brand as a public figure affiliated with the University. As alumni and taxpayers, it is well within our rights to consider how Coach Gillispie’s personal behavior impacts our team members as well as the University’s image.
I don’t necessarily count myself among the Kentucky fans who are rushing for Coach Gillispie’s beheading — uh, I mean termination.
Building a style of play is a lengthy process. Further, every team goes through slumps. If he does remain with Kentucky for another season, however, Coach Gillispie does owe all of us — the taxpayers, alumni and fans for whom he is a celebrity — the common courtesy of acknowledging the tremendous influence which his job entails.
Say it with me, Billy Clyde. You are a public figure.
Now, play nice with the media.
Floyd County native Heather C. Watson is a writer, Kentucky Basketball fan, and volunteer. She holds degrees from Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky and lives in Nashville with her fiancé, Bob, and their Labrador Retriever, Max. You can follow her on twitter.com/HeatherCW