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Billy Gillispie is ready to resume his career

By: Mike Jones Email
By: Mike Jones Email

Billy Gillispie began to receive calls and text messages not long after then-No. 1 Kentucky lost its first game of the season at South Carolina three weeks ago. All were in the same context, speculating that Gillispie was snickering that the team from the university that had fired him less than a year ago had tumbled from its perch as the top-ranked team in college basketball. Gillispie was surprised at the perception.

"I'm not like that at all," he said recently. "I'm pulling for them.

"To be able to do what they have done so quickly, no one has more respect for that than me, because I have been part of that [at UT-El Paso and Texas A&M]. I think they made a smart move [in hiring John Calipari].

"It affected me a little bit, but I will bounce back."

During a recent reflective and wide-ranging interview of more than two hours, Gillispie said he has no animosity toward the university that sideswiped him out of coaching's fast lane.

"I met a lot of great people there and I don't have any ill will toward Kentucky," he said. "The Kentucky fans are as good as there is in the history of sport.

"I got fired from the job, but I understand how the business works."

The past 11 months of Billy Gillispie's life have been like no other.

Five months after Kentucky fired him last March after only two seasons of an initial seven-year contract, Gillispie's image took another gut shot. In the early hours of Aug. 27, he was arrested for the third time in a decade on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Under a subsequent plea agreement, Gillispie reversed his original not-guilty plea, paid a fine and had his Kentucky driver's license suspended. In September, he entered outpatient treatment and counseling with the counselor to the fallen John Lucas, with whom he talks regularly.

The double-barrel twist of fate had a sobering effect on the 51-year-old former hot commodity from the small northwest Texas town of Graford. In 15 years, Gillispie had ascended from head coach at Killeen Ellison High School to one of the most coveted positions in college basketball.

But rather than be bitter over what might have been, Gillispie appears renewed in spirit and eager to restart his coaching career.

"I think it's been a great year for me," he said. "I've been on the fast track for a long time professionally. I never had a chance to take a deep breath.

"I've forced myself to become educated in a lot of different areas because of some of the mistakes I've made, and I think I've used my time wisely. I think I've enriched myself as a person and helped myself as a coach.

"I don't know that this is not one of the best things that has ever happened in my life."

San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, then a Spurs scout, first met Gillispie when the coach was an assistant at Baylor (1995-98). The two developed an enduring relationship.

"I think Billy is very contrite about the circumstances he has put himself in," Buford said. "He recognizes and has taken some pretty significant personal development steps to address his issues.

"I think he has a newfound purpose going forward as he looks for new opportunities, both personally and professionally."

Confrontation and balance

Gillispie admits a tempered, yet burning desire to return to the game he loves.

"Even though I might sound desperate, I'm not," he said. "But I am totally excited about the future. I am excited about building another program, about working within a university family and getting back to the NCAA Tournament."

His belief is that recent contemplation will make him a better coach and motivator, a difference-maker in both players' lives and the fortunes of a college program willing to take what some will describe as a large gamble.

"I hope that as a result [of recent months] I have a greater understanding of exercising balance," Gillispie said, "without a loss of desire or passion."

He has not been idle.

Since separating from Lucas' after-care program in November, he's traveled extensively, watching games and practices and seeing how other coaches work -- including Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops.

But he also has planned a new house for his mother, who still lives in Graford. He's organized a private foundation to benefit young people on an individual-case basis. He volunteers four times a week. He said he's resumed attending church after a lapse in practice, but not in faith.

He's also exercising again, has lost 15 pounds and no longer requires a daily dose of blood pressure medicine. In what he says is a totally new experience, he's read 21 books.

And he said he's stopped drinking.

"I never thought I had a problem with alcohol," Gillispie said. "But alcohol definitely contributed to my mistake that night [the DUI stop outside Lexington, Ky.].

"I made a stupid mistake I had promised myself I would not repeat. But I took matters into my own hands -- under good guidance -- to address that mistake. It was a fantastic experience for me to gain a great deal of education that will not only help me, but will help others as well.

"As a result of that education, I don't [drink] anymore."

John Lucas has been sober for 24 years.

An admitted abuser of cocaine and alcohol, he conquered his problem and for more than a decade has helped countless others -- athletes and coaches, the famous and the unknown -- do the same.

Lucas spoke about his involvement with Gillispie only because Gillispie authorized him to do so.

"I don't characterize Billy as an alcoholic," Lucas said. "I just characterize Billy as someone who came to investigate.

"I reached out to him and he said, 'I'm willing to go through whatever you say.' And to me, that was major, major admittance and acceptance. Because most of the time, I've got to fight."

Lucas had but one condition.

"I told him, 'Don't come if this is about getting a coaching job back. Come because you want to have Billy Gillispie back. I'm not looking for Billy Clyde. I'm looking for William Gillispie.'

"We had a few run-ins, which is helpful," Lucas added. "Because I was asking for somebody who has been in control to give up that control."

Gillispie took an apartment in Houston less than two weeks after his arrest. For a month, he attended counseling sessions six hours a day, five days a week -- followed by more sessions on a less-regular basis and then another month with fewer requirements.

He moved to North Dallas in early December.

"After going through all the things he needed to do, he has moved on," Lucas said. "So you can't say he hasn't addressed the issue. He now has the tools of knowing what may or may not have caused [his problem]."

Lucas said a major focus was to get Gillispie to consider there is more to life than coaching basketball. He believes Gillispie understands that.

"He's doing really good," Lucas said. "I talk to him two or three times a week. We rarely talk about basketball."

The Gillispie riddle

Based on both perception and personal experience, people have offered varying and almost unending phrases to describe Gillispie.

On the one hand: driven, single-minded, brash, arrogant, complex, demanding. On the other: shy, private, charitable, passionate and loving.

Gillispie did not lose his job at Kentucky because of a 40-27 record. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart said as much at the news conference announcing the administration's decision to sever the relationship.

"Unfortunately, there are times when a situation and the people involved do not create the right chemistry or the right fit," Barnhart said, citing "dramatic differences" in the views of the high-profile job between coach and administration.

"He's a good basketball coach," Barnhart said. "Sometimes, it's not the right fit."

Gillispie maintains that he would have won championships at Kentucky. Non-basketball related issues prevented that.

The rabid fan base criticized his lack of interaction with both the masses and influential boosters, his treatment of players -- which was no different than at UTEP or A&M -- his single-minded purpose and his failure to realize he was among the most important people in the state.

"One of the things I probably didn't do a good job of was understanding the [UK] position and...how people view that position," Gillispie said.

"I've always just been a regular guy. It's hard for me to fathom that people look at you as special, just because you're a basketball coach. Because I'm not special. We're all the same.

"But I probably need to do a better job of understanding all that. And I will."

UK administrators conceded they should have done a better job briefing Gillispie on the totality of his duties.

"There were times when I was asked to do something when I was either recruiting or coaching my team, and those two things have to be a priority," Gillispie said.

"If I was able to go somewhere, I went every single time. But you can't honor every request. I could have gone somewhere 20 times a day when I was at Kentucky because of the love of the program.

"But I tried to treat every single person with respect."

Gillispie was also dogged by rumors of supposed after-hours carousing. Those rumors caused a major image problem, mainly when his teams were not winning. None was documented.

In fact, the Lexington Herald-Leader commissioned its top investigative reporter to separate truth from fiction. No evidence was found to support claims of either alcohol-related arguments or borderline risqué escapades.

During his time at A&M, the Star-Telegram approached Gillispie about similar stories, including one specific incident, which he denied and was never verified.

Kentucky President Lee Todd had this to say to the Herald-Leader:

"One thing [Barnhart] said to me when some of this discussion was going on -- with everyone walking around with a cellphone with a camera in their pocket -- if this stuff was going on, it would be on YouTube or whatever.

"And it never was."

A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said he, too, heard stories -- most of them after Gillispie left. No one offered evidence.

Byrne also addressed the specter of Gillispie's perceived gruff countenance.

"Every great coach I've ever worked with -- and he is a great coach -- has his moments," Byrne said. "People tell me I have my moments, too."

A source with knowledge of the A&M situation who asked not to be identified conceded Gillispie wasn't gung-ho on "rubber-chicken dinners" with A&M donors.

"But he was spectacular when he did do it," the source said. "He would go into a donor event and laugh and cry and have the crowd doing exactly the same thing.

"[The Aggies] knew that he was so emotionally engaged with those players and they saw how they played for him. They loved him for it. When donors see a coach who clearly loves his players, generally they are going to go to the ends of the earth for him. A&M basketball donors did just that for Billy.

"You could call the [$22 million] Cox-McFerrin Center for Aggie Basketball [opened in January 2009] the house that Billy built. Because without Billy, that building wouldn't be there."

A demanding "softie"

Nebraska basketball coach Doc Sadler and Kansas coach Bill Self are among Gillispie's closest friends.

Sadler met Gillispie when Sadler was an assistant at Texas Tech recruiting one of Gillispie's players at Killeen Ellison. Sadler succeeded him at UTEP after a year as his top assistant when Gillispie left for A&M.

Sadler said the person he read about and heard stories about at Kentucky is not the person he knows.

"I just see a whole different side of him than anybody else," Sadler said. "The side that I see is how he treats people. A lot of people that some people do not treat with respect he treats them with the most respect -- like a waiter or a waitress at a truck stop.

"I've seen Billy leave a $100 tip and asked him what he was doing. He said, 'She needs it more than I do.' He is just a very caring person."

Sadler cited several other instances, including Gillispie's financial support of one of their friends in El Paso who is seriously ill. He also recalled Gillispie being late for a Thanksgiving dinner because he was serving food at a shelter.

"But Billy isn't one of those guys who will tell you he is doing things like that," Sadler said. "He has a soft heart for people. And there is nothing that tears him up more than a [young person] going through some type of difficult situation."

Self said he saw Gillispie often act on impulse when Gillispie was one of his assistants at both Tulsa and Illinois.

"He could be watching a story on TV and the next day that becomes his pet project," he said. "He doesn't do things for show and that's how it should be.

"He is very unique in how he chooses to attack things. But he is a softie for helping people. He always has been."

Gillispie's contrasting boot-camp approach to coaching rubbed a lot of people the wrong way at Kentucky. But a UK source said there were two sides to that story.

"Billy's approach is to break players down and build them back up," he said. "But at Kentucky, when those players left the gym, everybody they ran into told them how great they were. I'm sure that was a problem."

Byrne said he had calls from parents complaining about their sons' lack of playing time, but none citing mistreatment.

"Nothing like that," Byrne said. "I will forever be grateful to Billy Gillispie. We wouldn't have the program we have now, nor would we have been able to hire Mark Turgeon if it had not been for Billy Gillispie."

Former Aggies guard Acie Law, who is now with the Charlotte Bobcats, credited Gillispie when the Atlanta Hawks picked him in the first round of the 2007 NBA Draft. The two have maintained a close relationship -- one that admittedly did not begin well because of the way Gillispie pushed his players to the limit.

"I don't know where to begin," Law said last week when asked to quantify the relationship.

"One thing I can say about Coach G is that he loves everybody that is involved with his team -- players, managers, trainers, assistant coaches. He wants the best and he expects the best from everybody. He wants you to be the greatest manager or the greatest assistant coach you can be. He wanted me to be the best player I could be so I could play in the NBA.

"When he first came, we didn't understand that. But as we got to know Coach off the court, we came to realize that this guy really, really loved us and this was his way of pushing us to be better men. We all matured as a team and bought into that.

"I love him to death and I am so glad I was able to be around him. He is the reason I am where I am today."

Gillispie concedes the public relations battle he faces as he pursues a return to coaching will be fierce.

Why should any AD take that gamble?

"I think, number one, we're going to do great in basketball," he said. "I think that's proven.

"Our teams are going to get better in a hurry and create a great deal of excitement. We had the biggest turnarounds in college basketball and the greatest increase in attendance at UTEP and A&M. We're going to get it done academically.

"Those aren't going to be the questions that are going to need to be answered," Gillispie said. "The question that does need to be answered is, 'Are you going to repeat the same mistakes?'

"And the answer is no."

Story Courtesy of: Star-Telegram


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