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Billy Gillispie's long fall began day he decided to leave Texas A&M for Kentucky

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

It was a warm winter day back in 2007 and Billy Clyde Gillispie had the world, or at least the state of Texas, which was all the world he'd ever seemed to need, sitting in the palm of his hands.

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Billy Gillispie spent just one season at Texas Tech. (AP)

He was 48 and had turned Texas A&M into a budding player on the national stage. He inherited a program that went 0-16 in the Big 12 and immediately won 21 games, eight in the league. It was similar to his previous stop at UTEP, where he went from six wins to 24. He had the rebuilding formula.

By then – his third year at Texas A&M – he had an excellent club that would eventually reach the Sweet Sixteen. It was unheard of for the Aggies.

Gillispie was intense and funny, a small-town son of a cattle-truck driver from a little high school west of Fort Worth, which, is to say, the middle of nowhere, with a graduating class of 20.

He was a self-made basketball coach, having begun his career as a student-assistant at Sam Houston State. He worked his way up every rung of the ladder – assistant high school coach, head high school coach, junior college and college assistant. College Station was, quite unbelievably, the 10th Texas town he coached in, in addition to assistant jobs at Tulsa and Illinois.

He was a Texan through and through, known by everyone, liked by almost everyone, capable of recruiting the state like maybe no one ever before him. He was one of them, as down to earth as you could be.

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He was convinced Texas A&M was going to be big, real big. Sweet Sixteens were just the beginning, and there was no reason, no reason at all, not to believe him. He was too talented, too tough, too focused for anything else.

He was divorced and hadn't remarried. He didn't have any kids. He was all work. He kept arguing with me that day to cancel my hotel reservation and stay at this enormous house he owned. He had five bedrooms, and it was just him rattling around in there. Why pay for a hotel? It made no sense, he kept saying.

As a general rule of journalism, you don't stay at the home of someone you are covering, so I kept the reservation.

But he couldn't figure it out. We'd known each other for years anyway, and he wasn't trying to buy good coverage. Anyway, what exactly could you possibly write about Billy Gillispie at that moment that was negative?

There were nothing but positives. Nothing at all. This was the perfect coaching match, right there deep in the heart of Texas.

And then that spring, the University of Kentucky called.


On Thursday, Billy Gillispie resigned his latest job, head coach at Texas Tech, after just one season and eight victories. There were a series of recent allegations from current and former players about extra practices, boorish behavior and unprofessional treatment. There were stories he treated assistants and staffers poorly and didn't seemingly care about players' injuries.

Compounding the situation, Gillispie had gone to the hospital to deal with stress and high blood pressure.

The school had no choice. The school probably didn't want any choice. Once the Texan with the golden touch, Gillispie was now an overbearing, uneven, push-too-hard ball of self-destruction.

It was 5½ years and a million miles from those heady days in College Station.

Somewhere along the way, it all collapsed on Billy Gillispie. The storyline went from colorfully intense to borderline insane. And while there is no doubt that plenty of people he rubbed the wrong way enjoyed every minute of his latest fall, this remains a coaching casualty.

He wasn't always this way. It didn't always need to end this way.

Back before Kentucky called and offered him its job running what Rick Pitino once called the Roman Empire of College Basketball – a job so good Pitino left the New York Knicks for it – Gillispie was in the proper spot.

He was an introvert. He was a bit odd but highly entertaining. He was someone who wanted to go out and have beers like a regular person. Speaking engagements and glad-handing alums wasn't much fun. He liked real friendships, taking the time to form real bonds. The bigger the job, the tougher that is.

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Gillispie went 40-27 in two seasons at Kentucky. (AP)

In football-mad College Station, he had the best of all worlds, big budgets but little spotlight. He was surrounded by support, minimal pressure and a whole mess of old high school coaching buddies who had good recruits.

Kentucky was different. National championships are the expectation. Recruiting needs to be national, with UK in every top-10 dogfight imaginable. The time demands and inherent overwhelming fame can crush anyone. Even Pitino eventually fled back to the NBA.

When Gillispie was contemplating the job, one of his mentors, Don Haskins, the old UTEP Hall of Famer who had befriended the young coach during his two years in El Paso, kept pleading with him to turn it down and stay. Kentucky, Haskins said, had just run off a good man and good coach in Tubby Smith. The environment was just too much.

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Stay at A&M and win forever, Haskins kept telling him. You found your spot.

Everyone else told Gillispie he had to go, that he had to chase national titles, had to take the job that everyone in college basketball fantasizes about.

It's Kentucky, they told him. You can't turn down Kentucky.

He didn't, of course. He went with the biggest of dreams and highest of expectations.

That fall in 2007, Kentucky opened its season with its traditional "Big Blue Madness," a ceremonial practice in which some 23,000 Wildcats fans stuffed Rupp Arena for a glimpse of their new savior.

The school hung four big white curtains, did a huge intro and then dropped the curtains to reveal Gillispie standing there. He pumped his fist and tried to smile, but the whole thing was just, well, just too much everything.

This was not Billy Clyde Gillispie, not Graford, Texas. It wasn't the kind of way he wanted or wished to do things. They got him to a microphone and he was asked to tell the crowd what he thought.

"I can't speak," he said.

It was probably all over at that point.


Who knows what happened to Gillispie from there? His two seasons in Kentucky were miserable. The old tricks he used to build UTEP and A&M didn't work. He couldn't will his way to improvement, yet he kept trying, harder and harder and harder.

His recruiting wasn't aggressive enough. The players didn't respond. He hid out in his house in Lexington. He was uncomfortable going out to do much. He just worked. The team didn't win. Everything blew up. What always worked suddenly didn't. Year two was worse, not better.

When I'd speak to him, he wasn't the same Billy Clyde. The pressure was enormous. Watching Gillispie in Lexington was like watching someone digging his own grave while thinking the only way to reverse course was to dig faster and deeper.

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He was fired in 2009 with a 40-27 record.

Losing any job can cause embarrassment, doubt, anger and everything else. Now, imagine it being splashed all over the media and knowing that you couldn't manage to win a single NCAA tournament game at arguably the top program in America.

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Gillispie's reported overbearing ways helped lead to his undoing at Texas Tech. (AP)

Gillispie took two years off, moved back to Texas, stayed involved in basketball and prepared for his grand return. Tech hired him in 2011, and it sure seemed like a great fit. This was a second chance at the perfection of A&M. At this point, though, it was too late. He pushed too hard. He rarely showed his likable personality. He'd lost some of his confidence. His default move was just to keep charging.

Eventually, Gillispie hit the wall. First it was too much backlash from the players and then too much from his own body.

In 5½ years Gillispie went from the hottest coach in America, king of a fiefdom that had so much potential in Texas to a twice-failed headman with a now terrible rep and a lengthy hospital stay.

Who knows exactly what happened. Who knows why he changed or where the balance went or whether he can get it back. Maybe it was the pressure. Maybe it was his personality. Maybe it was the meat-grinder of college hoops, where you're hailed as a messiah and feel the need to produce magic overnight.

All I know is that back in 2007, Billy Clyde's future couldn't have been brighter. Instead, it turned into this, the career coach sitting in a hospital, wondering how to get his life back on track.

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