There’s no way of knowing what Adolph Rupp might say about Kentucky’s new head basketball coach. The Baron has been gone since Dec. 12, 1976. But this much we know, for certain: Billy Gillispie has drawn an endorsement from a former Rupp assistant, a man who pre-dates Joe B. Hall on the UK staff. And it’s an endorsement that rings as loudly as Big Ben.
Neil Reed was a member of the UK coaching staff from 1961-65. I had the pleasure of meeting him in the summer of 2005, while I was the Sports Manager at WKYT-TV. Videographer Steve Moss and I were busy doing research for what eventually became the two-hour documentary, “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.”
More than one person recommended we speak to a former Rupp assistant named Neil Reed. I must admit, I’d never heard of Neil, but as his name kept popping up, I realized he might be a key figure in the recollections we were seeking, of what UK basketball was like during the early 60’s, and of what Rupp really believed about desegregating his team.
We had no idea what kind of journey we were about to take – literally, and figuratively.
I finally tracked Reed down, through the help (albeit indirectly) of Claude Bassett, of all people. The disgraced ex-UK recruiting coordinator shared a mutual friend with Reed: Sonny Detmer, the father of retired NFL quarterback Ty Detmer. Bassett put us in touch with Sonny, who had lost Neil’s new unlisted number; however, he did know of another person who could help us find the coach, which we did.
We tracked Reed down; he was living in a town near Houston (he values his privacy, which is why I’m not more specific). He happily invited us to his home, where Steve and I spent nearly seven hours. Less than two of those we spent conducting the interview. The rest of the time, he regaled us with stories about ballgames, UK, Rupp and other coaches and players.
He told us how he came to work for Rupp, how he recruited Louie Dampier and Pat Riley; about how Riley once flew him to Los Angeles to help him teach the Lakers about full-court pressure.
As Steve still says today, “When it comes to basketball, he’s the most plugged-in guy I’ve ever met.”
Reed knows so many people I came to a simple conclusion: He’s the Forrest Gump of basketball.
By the time we met, I already had conducted a number of interviews and piled up a stack of anecdotes and research. But I was still struggling with how to put it all together. As we left Neil’s home and drove back to Houston late that night, I turned to Steve and said, “Now, I know what I’m going to do.” His recollections about Rupp, and about their efforts to recruit African-American players beginning in the early 1960’s, became a focal point of our documentary.
We still swap e-mails occasionally, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when, shortly after the introduction of Gillispie, I received a note from coach Reed. Neil left UK when he became frustrated with the resistance among “friends” and boosters to Rupp’s efforts to integrate his team. But he’s still an avowed Kentucky backer, as excited as the fans who poured into Memorial Coliseum for the pep rally the day Gillispie was hired. This is what he sent me:
I can not say enough about how impressed I have been regarding the coaching ability of Billy Gillespie. He is a secret to the rest of the country but not to Texas and the Big 12. I have watched him for years and he has impressed me more than any coach during those years.
He is a good, good man and an excellent coach. The high school coaches in Kentucky as well as the old breeding grounds of Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana, and Illinois will fall in love with the guy.
What he has done at A&M is nothing short of a miracle. He turned half of all Texans into Aggies rooting for his team.
Dick, I listened to his press conference and I want you to know, I was not ashamed to find myself crying. UK has a Roy Williams and a Billy Donovan who may end up being the best coach ever to lead the Cats. For two years my mind has been numbed with the query, "Why does A&M have a Billy Gillespie and UK doesn't?"
Get to know him. He is pure as a West Texas stream. Golly gee, I am excited and I hope UK fans realize, as an excellent old coach called from Florida to tell me, "The Wildcats just got a better coach than Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino, or Roy Williams, if only they can see it and get behind him."
And this guy is a huge Donovan and Pitino fan.
I am assuming Cat fans still love a great fast break and a great pressing team.
I don't know him, never met him, but tell him how high I regard his abilities. If I can do anything to help down this way, tell him to get in touch.
All the best,
After I asked Neil for permission to write about his note to me, he sent me even more information about UK’s new head coach. Basketball purists, read on:
Some more of Billy Gillespie:
Billy comes from Graford, a small school that has always been a basketball school and a rarity in Texas of not having a football team, even 6-man. It is in an area of winners and high achievers among them; Mary Martin, Sammy Baugh, Bob Lilly, "Sweetwater" Clifton, Larry McMurtry and Forrest Gregg, to name a few.
I first heard of Billy in 1989 when he was coaching Canyon High near San Antonio. I was so critical of so many coaches and their systems that several coaches told me I should take a look at the young fellow at Canyon. Sure enough, I was impressed.
In 1992-3 I was helping one of my boys from Indiana put in my system in a 5-A school. We played in an excellent tourney in Lampasas and there was Billy's team from Killeen (Ellison), just stomping everybody in the tourney. He ended up with one of the top teams in the state.
The next thing I heard about Billy was from my friends in Illinois. I told them to keep an eye on him as I am a U of I graduate. They had nothing but glowing accolades for the job he was doing (a great recruiter) and his players ended up being #1 in 2005, playing Carolina in the championship game.
Billy left Illinois for his first head college job at UTEP, formerly known as Texas Western (ugh) and I began to follow closely at that time. What he did in El Paso amazed me.
What he then did at A&M seems unreal. Kentuckians have no idea of the mess of mediocrity he took over at College Station. I told my Aggie friends that they were going to become a basketball school in short order and they just grinned and told me to pass the salsa. Now, those same people have a real hate-on for UK as they just knew that Billy would be winning an NCAA soon. His roster is made up of Texans. He just out-recruited Texas and Florida for one of the best youngsters in the country. That young man would have been the person to get the Ags to the Final Four.
Dick, I believe in Billy and UK is so fortunate to have him. He is a rarity. Some UK fans, from what I have read, remind me of the Packer fans back in '60 when the Packers took an assistant coach instead of getting a "big name" guy. A Packer fan friend of mine stated, "Same old mediocrity, we'll never have another Curly Lambeau." Well, Vince Lombardi did a right good job of continuing the mediocrity.
Also, tell Kentuckians that the Heroes of Texas were from Kentucky and Tennessee. Texans are made from the same cloth as Kentuckians and Ohio River people. They will love Billy if they give him a chance. He could be from Owensboro, Ashland, or Hazard. He is that kind of guy. Salt of the earth.
“Heroes of Texas?” I had to think a moment; then it struck me: The Alamo. Many of the Americans who fought and died there were, indeed, from Tennessee and Kentucky, including Davy Crockett.
So, there you have it – a former UK assistant coach, a man who worked under Adolph Rupp, assuring Big Blue fans that they have the right guy.
Will Billy Gillispie be successful instantly? Doubtful, given the holes in his roster and the challenging schedule that’s sure to lie ahead. But you have to like his chances, better than the outnumbered few at the Alamo.
That would’ve been a good day to take the Mexican Army, and lay the points…