Late last fall, in a private gym in Flower Mound, Texas, Billy Gillispie made his long-awaited return to coaching.
A whistle hung from Gillispie’s neck as he paced the baseline in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. Time after time while explaining a half-court scheme, Gillispie halted the action to send a loafing player to the bench.
“Tell me when you’re ready to give 100 percent,” Gillispie said, “and I’ll put you back in.”
Ex-Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie spent time as a volunteer for a junior-high AAU team.
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Ever since his firing at Kentucky in March of 2009, the nation’s top unemployed coach can’t say ‘yes’ quick enough when his friend, Neal Hawks, asks for help with his son’s junior-high AAU team.
“It doesn’t matter what age the players are,” said Gillispie, whose volunteer coaching duties are among the many ways he’s reached out to others since being fired from Kentucky two years ago.
“Basketball is basketball. I love being on the court. I love working with kids.”
Right now it’s with 20 parents lurking on the sideline. Next fall, Gillispie hopes to be doing it with 20,000 college basketball fans screaming from the stands.
Gillispie longs for those nights, for the pregame chills he gets from standing in the middle of a sold-out arena, for the joy he experiences watching his team celebrate a big road win, for the warmth he feels on Senior Day, when players wrap their arms around him and whisper “thank you.”
As much as he appreciated those things before, they mean even more to Gillispie now following a two-year period that included his firing at Kentucky, an arrest for DUI, a stint in a Houston rehabilitation center and the loss of his mother, Winfred, to lung cancer.
Rough as it may sound, Gillispie has been able to draw some positives from his time away from the game.
“I was able to step back and take a deep breath,” Gillispie said during a two-hour interview with Yahoo! Sports last week. “I went from being a high school coach in 1993 to the top of the college basketball mountain in 15 years. It was a meteoric rise and I never took time off because it never felt like work.
“It’s been good for me to just take a deep breath and assess everything. Some people call it an ‘awakening.’ I’m not sure it’s that earth-shattering, but I’ve been able to step back and remind myself of my core values and where my priorities should lie.”
Gillispie leans back in his reclining chair and smiles.
He’s sitting in an Allen Fieldhouse conference room at the University of Kansas, where he’s come to visit his former boss and mentor, Jayhawks coach Bill Self.
Looking closer to 41 than 51, Gillispie hardly resembles the puffy-cheeked man whose police mug shot was plastered on the front of newspapers across Kentucky 18 months ago. His face is thinner, his eyes sparkle and his voice booms with energy as he talks about the satisfaction he’s received from working with charitable organizations such as MADD and Big Brothers Big Sisters the past few months.
Ask him about his legal issues and Gillispie hardly bristles. Even though therapists in the Houston rehabilitation center run by former NBA coach John Lucas concluded he didn’t have a problem with alcohol – “He had a problem making good decisions when he was around alcohol, big difference,” Lucas said – Gillispie has decided to quit drinking.
“I don’t need it,” Gillispie said. “I didn’t need it before, either. I just decided not to do it anymore.”
Gillispie looks forward to the day he can tell an inquiring athletic director the same thing, face-to-face, during a job interview. And he’ll be glad to address concerns that he’s often too tough on players, or that he can be difficult to deal with.
“The good thing is that no one that knows me has ever said anything like that,” Gillispie said. “And if I’m fortunate enough to get hired somewhere, the person that does it is going to know me, too. He’s going to meet me and talk to the right people instead of doing his research on Google.”
Billy Gillispie is convinced he can get back to the top of the sport.
Now he needs to convince someone else.
Billy Gillispie has spent a large chunk of his time the past two years attending college basketball games. Sometimes he flies to Kansas to watch Self’s Jayhawks, other times he and Neal Hawks – a Nebraska alum – show up in Lincoln to support Cornhuskers coach Doc Sadler.
Still a recognizable face at arenas throughout the country, Gillispie said he’s always appreciative of the well-wishers who approach him to make small talk. About a year ago, though, he became upset when a fan began complaining about his team’s coach.
“I told him, ‘You’ve got a great coach, and no disrespect, but you’re talking about my friend,’ ” Gillispie said. “I’m real defensive about those kinds of things. It’s hard for me to hear people talking bad about a coach and about them maybe losing their job.
“After having gone through it, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Considering his accomplishments before arriving at Kentucky, it would’ve been tough to predict that things wouldn’t work out for Gillispie, whose track record of reviving struggling programs in a short timetable was almost hard to fathom.
Gillispie transformed UTEP from a 24-loss team in 2002-03 to a 24-win team a year later. Then, in three seasons at Texas A&M, Gillispie turned a squad that had gone 0-16 in conference play the year before his arrival into a No. 3 seed in the 2007 NCAA tournament.
“For those first five years he was a head coach, no one was any better,” Self said.
Kentucky took notice and hired Gillispie to replace Tubby Smith and, initially, it appeared as if Gillispie’s success would continue. He was named SEC Coach of the Year in the spring of 2008 after getting the injury-riddled Wildcats into the NCAA tournament.
But the Wildcats struggled the following season and had to settle for the NIT after going 20-13 in the regular season.
Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall (right) says he felt sorry for Billy Gillispie (left) as he dealt with the rigors that accompany the UK coaching job.
(Mark Zerof/US Presswire)
As the losses piled up on the court, the scrutiny of Gillispie off of it began to increase. A simple trip to dinner or an evening out with friends became message-board fodder. Television stations asked to do stories on his lavish home and the local newspaper assigned an investigative reporter to look into rumors about Gillispie’s social life.
Gillispie said he was too busy working to let the situation distract him, adding that the support he and his program received from fans was “more than we could’ve asked for.” Still, watching from afar, former Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall couldn’t help but feel sorry for Gillispie as he dealt with the rigors that accompany one of the highest-profile positions in all of college sports.
“He’s such a likable person,” Hall said of Gillispie. “But it’s overwhelming if you come into this community and don’t recognize the demands that are put on a coach 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It could absolutely destroy someone that wasn’t prepared for it.”
One of the biggest criticisms of Gillispie was that he turned down too many public appearance requests and that he didn’t spend enough time with boosters. Gillispie acknowledges that he made a mistake by not educating himself about the demands of the job.
“You go to Kentucky because you want to win a national championship, so the demands shouldn’t bother any coach,” Gillispie said. “I probably just didn’t understand how to maneuver through some of those things very well, and that’s my fault. There were plenty of people there who could’ve helped.”
Gillispie was fired on March 27, 2009. Two years later, he insists his experience at Kentucky was a positive one and that he holds no ill will toward university president Lee Todd or athletic director Mitch Barnhart, who declined to comment through a school spokesman.
“I was treated fairly,” Gillispie said. “I put Dr. Todd and Mitch Barnhart in a tough situation. I never wanted to do that. I never wanted to be a burden to anyone. Changes happen all the time. Any time you work for someone else, you work at their mercy.
“They gave me the opportunity to be there. They gave me the resources to do what I needed to do. That was never lacking. I just put them in a very tough situation where they were probably hearing from people who weren’t too fired up about the number of games we were winning, even though we won 22 games the last year.
“We didn’t do what we needed to do as quickly as everyone wanted it to happen.”
Not long ago, the phone rang at the Mothers Against Drunk Driving office in Dallas, and on the other end was Billy Gillispie.
“I’m not sure if you have male members,” he said. “But if you do, I’d like to help.”
Calls to such organizations have been common for Gillispie since his DUI arrest in Lawrenceburg, Ky., on Aug. 27, 2009. It marked the third time in the last decade that Gillispie was charged with such an offense, although a 2003 charge in El Paso was dismissed because of a lack of evidence.
Despite his legal issues, Gillispie never felt as if he had a problem with alcohol. He’d made the terrible decision to get behind the wheel when he was impaired, and for that he will be forever remorseful. But to get back into coaching, he knew he’d have to prove that alcohol wasn’t the factor in his life that everyone thought it was.
Two weeks after his arrest, Gillispie enrolled in the John Lucas After Care program in Houston and asked Lucas to put him through the toughest, most thorough evaluation possible.
For a month he attended counseling sessions six hours a day, five days a week. Sessions continued on a less-regular basis for the next two months.
“It gave me a great education,” Gillispie said. “I had to answer some hard questions that were all about who you are and what you are inside. They make you think about where you’ve been and where you want to go.
“It really helped me evaluate things. That time helped me get my thoughts together.”
When his stint in Houston was complete, Gillispie received the exact assessment he was expecting from Lucas.
“Billy isn’t an alcoholic,” Lucas said. “He was just making some bad choices. I don’t think drinking was the problem. In some ways, his profession may have been the problem. Coaches and athletes are so used to finding ways to win, they think they can beat anything. They can’t accept that a substance has that kind of power over them. They think ‘I can handle this’ or ‘I can beat this.’
“I tell them, ‘You want to beat it? Then stop. Just don’t play.’ ”
Lucas said he speaks with Gillispie every week and that he couldn’t be in better spirits. As good of a coach as Gillispie has been in the past, Lucas said his recent hardships will make him even better.
“Think of how comforting it would be as a parent,” Lucas said, “to have a guy coaching your son who has been through adversity in his life and conquered it. Billy will have a whole new sensitivity to certain things now. He’ll be able to see things before they happen.
“This scar he has will end up being a blessing.”
Former Kansas and NBA coach Larry Brown agrees. Brown, who spent four days with Gillispie in Lawrence last week, said it would be a shame if potential suitors are scared off by Gillispie’s past legal issues.
A tentative plan is in the works for Billy Gillispie to speak to various groups of college athletes to try to convince them to sign up to mentor children in need of role models.
(Mark Zerof/US Presswire)
“The thing I notice with guys that pick themselves up off the pavement is that they realize how lucky they are to be doing what we’re doing and how precious these jobs are,” Brown said. “Not a day goes by when I’m not thankful for my career. Now more than ever, I’m sure Billy feels exactly like me.”
Eager as he is to land another coaching job, Gillispie said the past year couldn’t have been any more fulfilling. Most of his time was spent in his hometown of Graford, Texas (population 612). Less than two years removed from living in a $1.5 million mansion in Lexington, Gillispie was bunking up at the home of his mother, whose place had never been equipped with central heating and air.
Gillispie made several attempts to build Winfred a new home, but she declined each time. Winfred was diagnosed with lung cancer in October and died on Jan. 7 of this year.
Although he’s still grieving, Gillispie is doing his best to move forward and help others.
He said he almost started a website called www.ivolunteer.com but decided instead to cold-call random organizations and offer his help. It’s not uncommon for Gillispie to show up unannounced at a Fort Worth nursing home to eat lunch or watch television with some of the residents.
He said he went through the steps to become a qualified speaker for MADD and is helping the group promote marches in Dallas and Fort Worth on April 2 and 9.
Gillispie has also become involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters. A tentative plan is in the works for Gillispie to speak to various groups of college athletes to try to convince them to sign up to mentor children in need of role models.
Charles Pierson, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sister North Texas, said he’s met with Gillispie about six times in the last month.
“I work with thousands of volunteers,” Pierson said. “I can tell when someone is genuine and someone is not. He told us he didn’t want any publicity. He just said, ‘The only reason I’m here is because I think what you do is really neat, and I want to help.’ ”
Pierson also said Gillispie has also told him he wants to be assigned a little brother once he establishes a permanent residence.
“Billy is so excited about all of this,” said Hawks, the friend with the eighth-grade AAU team. “In some ways I think he’s kind of torn. He wants to get back into coaching, but there are these other opportunities out there to help a bunch of kids. He’s hoping he can find a way to do both.”
The first time Billy Gillispie met with his team at Kentucky, he stood in the middle of the Wildcats locker room and read off his phone number.
“Keep it for the rest of your lives,” he told his players. “If you ever need anything, I’ll be there for you.”
Gillispie isn’t married. He doesn’t have any children. That’s why, when Gillispie walks into a locker room, he sees more than a group of players. He sees a family.
“That’s why he wants to coach again so bad,” said Doc Sadler, the Nebraska coach and one of Gillispie’s closest friends. “He doesn’t feel like he has to prove anything after what happened at Kentucky. With him it’s all about the players. When your players are your kids, it’s a whole different level.”
Even though he’s altered some things in his personal life, Gillispie’s coaching philosophies won’t change much if he’s lucky enough to get a new job. And why should it? When you win conference coach of the year in three of your last five seasons on the sidelines, there probably isn’t much reason to do anything different.
“The guys that are successful with college players are old school,” Larry Brown said. “The biggest challenge is to get these kids to know that they care about them. The ones that do it the best … their kids understand and buy in right from the start.”
Former Kentucky guard Michael Porter said that’s how he felt at Kentucky. He said internet rumors that Gillispie was “too tough” on the Wildcats were embellished.
Billy Gillispie isn’t pointing fingers, but he’s ready to return to big-time coaching.
(Mark Zerof/US Presswire)
“It wasn’t as crazy as people made it out to be,” Porter said. “Things got blown out of proportion and some of it gave him a bad name. I felt bad for him, because most of that stuff isn’t true.
“He demanded his players work hard like any coach should. Looking back, I thank him for it. I can get through anything now.”
Gillispie was asked if the changing times would make him consider going easier on his players at practice.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I want everybody to be the absolute best they can be and improve dramatically every single day. Our expectations are extremely high for the players. I’m willing to push those guys so that they can go beyond those expectations.
“It may be tough while you’re going through a two-hour practice, but the results are so great and you improve so quickly as a player, it’s worth it.”
Dominique Kirk, who played for Gillispie at Texas A&M, said Gillispie approached practices with the intensity of an NCAA tournament game. Former Aggies guard Josh Carter said there were times when he “hated Gillispie’s guts” because he pushed him so hard. But the more the Aggies won – and the better he performed – the more he appreciated him for it.
“I wouldn’t be a professional basketball player if it wasn’t for him,” Carter wrote in an email from Israel. “He took a very average player and [made] me a lot better than anybody ever thought I would be. He may be tough to play for sometimes, but he can also be very easy-going, too. He loves his players and will do almost anything for them.”
If anyone would be bitter at Gillispie it would be the Aggies. Gillispie said the biggest regret of his college coaching career was the manner in which he left Texas A&M for Kentucky. Because of circumstances beyond his control, Gillispie said he was forced to inform his players of his decision via text message.
Four years later, folks in College Station don’t harbor any ill will. As much as they hated to lose him they said they’ll always be thankful he was the Aggies’ coach for three seasons.
“The players here absolutely loved him,” said John Thornton, Texas A&M’s senior associate athletic director in charge of basketball. “They give him credit for everything they accomplished. His ego was nothing. He was one of them.”
Thornton said he’s confident Gillispie will experience similar success again soon.
“Billy is a good man,” he said. “He’s a relentless worker. His heart is in the right place. He put us on the map. We’ll always owe him for that.”
After two years away from basketball, Gillispie may finally be nearing a return to the game. His name continues to surface for potential coaching vacancies. A group of Texas Tech students have even printed T-shirts and started a website www.getgillispie.com to try to sway administrators as they search for a replacement for Pat Knight, who was fired Monday.
The buzz didn’t stop in Lubbock.
The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and San Antonio Express News have all published columns in support of Gillispie’s hiring at Texas Tech, which probably won’t be the only school interested in his services.
“Sometimes schools take risks when they hire a coach,” Self said. “But the school that hires Billy won’t be taking a risk at all.”
Gillispie refuses to discuss potential destinations, saying instead how painful it is to watch coaches lose their jobs. But when the opportunity comes to get back to the sidelines, he’ll be ready.
“Whoever it is will be satisfied in a very short time period,” Gillispie said. “It’s hard for me to imagine being any hungrier or more passionate at this point.”
“Then again,” he said, “if it doesn’t happen right now, it won’t be the end of the world for me. I’m doing just fine.”