BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - The summer months are usually a slow time of the season for a college basketball coach. It's a time to reflect, recruit, and rest up in the ever ending preparation one goes through in the building of a successful program.
Union head men's basketball coach Sean Gillespie, however, didn't do any of that this past summer. In fact, he found himself away from campus, his team, and most importantly his family, in fighting for a bigger cause: his country.
Earlier this year, Gillespie, 42, enlisted in Army National Guard basic training, fulfilling a dream he envisioned for many years.
The Call to Serve
Gillespie always had an idea he would someday volunteer his services to protect our country. Members of Gillespie's family served in the military (service in three Wars), including his father who was enlisted for 22 years. Gillespie also described himself as an "Army Brat", but, chose a different career path after college in coaching.
However, it was one event that rocked the foundation of our country that pushed Gillespie into service.
"The point for me was 9/11," said Gillespie. "I was 32 at the time, and that point, I felt a little patriotic and wanted to serve. So, really from 9/11, until now, the last 10 years, I’ve been involved in it, while trying to climb the career ladder."
That career path took Gillespie from Turkey, to Sterling College in Kansas, to here at Union in 2009. When he arrived in southeastern Kentucky, he finally acted on a promise he made to himself back on that dark day in 2001 and enlisted in the National Guard.
He needed permission from one important person first though.
"Over these last 10 years, my wife and I have had some deep discussions about it," he said. "So, finally in last October, I was doing some research online, and I learned that 42 was the age cutoff. So, from that point on, I told myself if I want to do this.
"I wasn't going to look back when I’m 45, 50, 55, and have any regrets about not doing it. At that point, I decided that I needed to make this happen."
Gillespie goes to Camp
So, on Easter Sunday in April, Gillespie packed up shop and headed to basic training at Ft. Benning outside of Columbus, Ga. There, Gillespie went through a grueling daily routine, much different from his own as a civilian.
Gone was his usual attire of a polo shirt and pressed pants, and on came Army fatigues. His weapon of choice was not a dry erase board and maker, but an actual weapon - a rifle. Instead of coaching young men, he was being drilled to the ground by a sergeant younger than he was.
"It was a little different at first," said Gillespie. "I’m 42 years old, having lived a civilian life, meaning that I choose when I eat, or use a restroom. When I got there, I learned real quick that the drill sergeants choose those times for you."
Gillespie, regardless of the age difference, still took his orders from his drill sergant, and eventually completed the program, losing over 30 pounds in the process after going through a rigourous training program.
Camp Difficult on Everyone
One of the common questions asked of Gillespie before he went off to basic training was how he was going to try to run two things while being away from Barbourville for so long: his program at Union, and his family.
Thankfully, Gillespie had a tremendous support system both on campus, and in his household.
"We just worked ahead," he said. "First, we accelerated our recruiting process, I got guys committed, and tried to knock a lot of that out right away. Second, our assistant coaches here kept the ball rolling in terms of recruiting. Coach (Jerrod) Stamford, who’s now at Fort Hayes State, did a great job of keeping things going while I was gone."
At home, the results were very similar.
"My wife did a great job," he said. "She became the mom and the dad of the house. It was a challenge at times, I know she said when I came back that it was nice to have two adults in the house now to help take care of the kids. Having 7- and 14-year old daughters, it was a challenge.
"But, they did well. The military does a good job of having a support system built in. My wife was connected online with a support group, so they do a great job in supporting the spouses left behind."
Being an Inspiration to Others, while Defending the Homeland
At the end of the day, Gillespie's ultimate goal in going to basic training at this stage in his life was to not only serve our country but to show others that it can be done despite "real world" problems.
"I want to utilize this as a platform," he said. "At first, I kind of shied away from it. When people first heard I was going to basic, they’d shake my hand and thank me for what I’ve done for my country. I really feel like I haven’t done anything yet. I really haven’t, I only went through basic training.
"Think of the guys who are on the front lines right now."
Lastly, Gillespie firmly believes his time in basic training will help him, both on the court when the Bulldogs open their 2011-12 campaign and off of it.
"It can be a great example for our young men and lead in our basketball program," he said. "It shows that a guy that’s 42, has a family and is comfortable in his career, made some sacrifices to serve. Hopefully they see some differences in me as a person and a leader. There are some things I learned in basic training, and not just the physical part stuff.
"There are some things that I learned that hopefully will make me a better coach, and husband and father to my kids."
Union opens the 2011-12 season Nov. 1 at Lindsey Wilson (Ky.).