COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Billy Gillispie had spent practically his entire life preparing to run a college basketball program. He had been a high school head coach and then a college assistant. He was a polished recruiter, a tireless worker and a bright young talent.
That's why, in 2002, Texas-El Paso gave him his big break, the Miners' head coaching position.
At that point for coaches, it's usually sink or swim. It's all on you. Whatever mentor you had usually is busy running his own program. The education is mostly over, that steady older, wiser hand no longer right there to offer advice or admonishment. Often surrounded by either yes-men or never-satisfied fans, honest answers are hard to find.
That's what Gillispie, now the head coach of hard-charging No. 8 Texas A&M, thought would happen when he got to El Paso. He would win or lose based on what he already knew.
Then he met Don Haskins, Hall of Famer and former UTEP coach, and a most unusual relationship was forged. Billy Gillispie, right when he was supposed to start having all the answers, found a guy he could ask all the questions.
What started as a courtesy cup of coffee turned into regular breakfasts with plays drawn up on napkins, endless defensive philosophy discussions on long drives and opponent scouting reports strewn out across Haskins' kitchen table.
It was mostly Haskins doing the teaching.
"I don't talk to Coach Haskins; I listen to Coach Haskins," Gillispie said. "With a guy like that, you [just] listen. And I still listen almost every day. I'm still learning from him every day."
Gillispie, who left UTEP for A&M in 2004, is a national coach of the year candidate for turning the Aggies (22-4, 12-2 Big 12) into a Final Four contender. Yet at least four or five days a week, occasionally more than once a day, he still dials up his new/old mentor in West Texas.
Haskins is most famous for being the first college coach to start five black players and winning the 1966 NCAA title, which served as a historic catalyst for the integration of teams in the South. The story was immortalized in both the book (which I wrote with Haskins) and movie "Glory Road."
But among coaches, Haskins is known as somewhat of a hoops genius. He operated so far from the nation's media centers that his accomplishments – cobbling together 719 career victories and 21 postseason appearances despite rarely having superior talent – were missed by most fans. But they weren't missed by his fellow coaches, who saw a guy who annually maximized his team's potential.
His systems have been copied by everyone from Billy Tubbs to Rick Majerus, his advice sought by everyone from Bob Knight to Larry Eustachy. His official coaching tree includes former assistant Tim Floyd, now head coach at Southern California, and former player Nolan Richardson, the only coach to win junior college, NCAA and NIT titles.
But it also must include two of the men who have succeeded him at UTEP – Gillispie and first-year Nebraska coach Doc Sadler, who coached the Miners from 2004 to 2006 and also grew extremely close to Haskins. Both still are in such constant contact with the man that they both joke he is their "unpaid assistant."
"He's as smart of a coach as there has ever been," said Gillispie, who is quick to credit Haskins with much of the success A&M enjoys now. "And he's as sharp as he can be. Every single conversation I learn something. Every single one. You'd have to be crazy not to listen."
Haskins, who retired in 1999, was famous for often stealing games from more talented teams. With its remote location, El Paso is not an easy place to lure players and Haskins wasn't exactly the most determined recruiter, especially late in his career. While he had some great players on occasion, he lacked the steady parade of prep stars most Hall of Famers enjoyed, yet he won anyway. Sometimes he did it with two centers, sometimes with four guards. Sometimes he played man-to-man, sometimes zone, sometimes a triangle and two – sometimes all in the same half.
He never could dictate his team's talent level to the point that he had the luxury of a tried and true system like major programs. He constantly had to innovate.
"Coach Haskins wasn't one of those guys with lots of [great] players," said Sadler, whose Cornhuskers are 15-10 and, with a favorable schedule, still are in contention for an NCAA tournament bid. "He had to do it different ways. I don't want this to come out wrong, but he's a heck of gimmick guy. He has all these little gimmicks, these special plays on how I can get it to my big guy more or how to defend a certain offense. He's incredible."
Both coaches predicted he'd say as much. But that's Haskins. When each first started meeting with him as UTEP coaches he was adamant they wouldn't let word of it leak out. In a town where he casts a huge shadow – he is an icon of incalculable status in West Texas – he believed the fans needed to see each as his own man, his own coach, not someone picking up secrets from him.
It is not unusual for a former assistant to call his old boss for advice – the way USC's Floyd still does with Haskins, or Gillispie does with Kansas coach Bill Self. At this point it wouldn't be a surprise if current UTEP coach Tony Barbee rang up Haskins. But the Gillispie/Sadler/Haskins dynamic is all but unheard of in college basketball.
Neither one knew Haskins before he came to UTEP. And truth be told, they didn't expect much from him. Not only is it rare for a coach to get a new mentor after getting a head job, the "old coach in town" often works to undermine the new guy.
So a young coach doesn't go in looking for zone offense secrets and a tight friendship. Often he just hopes to avoid getting stabbed in the back.
"It's a very unique situation," said Gillispie, 47. "You don't find someone as helpful as Coach Haskins. [But] no one has more UTEP pride than Coach Haskins. He wants to win."
"There are a lot of dudes who won a lot of games who wouldn't take the time even if you asked," said Sadler, 46.
"Well, the thing is," Haskins said, "they are both great guys. And I spent 38 years coaching here. I bleed orange and blue."
So what Gillispie and Sadler hoped would be a cordial relationship turned into much more. Almost immediately they realized Haskins still was as competitive as they are. And if you asked – and asked in the right way – there was a graduate degree in basketball coaching waiting.
"I was hardly a guy who pretended I knew everything," Sadler said. "So if you've got the encyclopedia there, you better use it."
Both men spent just two seasons as head coach at UTEP, each reaching one NCAA tournament, before big contracts and big opportunities in the Big 12 pulled them away. One of the only regrets was leaving Haskins. But it turns out that he's still there for them.
Both coaches call virtually daily to discuss game and practice plans. They share jokes and stories. If their game is not on ESPN Full Court, they send tape – although the old-school Haskins has no idea how to work even his remote control, let alone his VCR (his wife Mary or grandson Dominic has to handle the technology).
Gillispie always is trying to bring Haskins to practice courtesy of a private plane, but Haskins hates to leave El Paso. When Nebraska had a day off in late January, Sadler flew down to meet with Haskins and figure out what was wrong with the Huskers' offense.
"He already knows what's wrong before you ask," Sadler said. "A few weeks ago I asked about our offense. He said, 'Well, I know you didn't call to ask my opinion' – even though I did – 'but how many times did you get that big man [Aleks Maric] the ball?' And I said, 'We are getting it in there to him a lot, Coach.' And he said, 'Doc, I don't think you're getting it to him as much as you think.'
"Then we broke down the tape and charted it and he was right. I had it wrong. We started getting him the ball more."
Said Haskins with a laugh, "About two games later he had 41 [points in a win over Kansas State]."
Gillispie, in three short years, already has Texas A&M winning. The year before he arrived, the Aggies went 0-16 in the Big 12. Now they have a chance to win the league. Last season they reached their first NCAA tournament since 1987. Now, with a veteran team and a star guard in Acie Law IV, they could win that, too.
"That team, with a little luck, can go to the Final Four and win it," Haskins said. "But you need luck. Last year in the second round they lost by one point, at the buzzer to LSU, and then LSU went to the Final Four."
Gillispie already is trying to get Haskins to come with the team during the NCAA tournament and help with everything. He has promised a private plane to pick him up and drop him off in El Paso. But Haskins doesn't walk all that well and, truth be told, just doesn't like leaving town unless he has to. He rather just would watch on TV and talk on the phone.
Then again, if the Aggies make the Final Four in Atlanta, the mobile-unit coaching help line might have to go live.
"I'll tell you what, I'd have to think about it," Haskins said. "I might do that. This entire season, with these great guys, has just been a lot of fun for me."