Billy Gillispie's Rise to Stardom and Tragic Fall from Grace

Paul Ables@@PaulAblesBRContributor IIISeptember 21, 2012

Billy Gillispie resigned as head coach of Texas A&M
Billy Gillispie resigned as head coach of Texas A&MEd Zurga/Getty Images

Sometimes, a man can protect his life from every peril except for himself. This seems to be the case as former head coach Billy Clyde Gillispie resigned from Texas Tech, ending a volatile and disappointing tenure that casts plenty of doubt about his future in Division I basketball.

Gillispie was once a promising coaching prospect who appeared ready to stake his claim as the next big thing in college hoops. Instead, he has allowed his inner demons to take control of his life and have effectively forced him away from what he loves doing most: coaching basketball to young men.

The story of Billy Gillispie is one of sadness and regret, but it all began with great promise during his early days as an assistant head coach. Gillispie's first job in Division I came under the guidance of head coach Harry Miller at Baylor University. The highlight of his tenure came in 1996, when Gillispie helped assemble the Bears' sixth-ranked recruiting class in the nation that season.

Billy eventually left the Baylor program and landed at the University of Tulsa, where he learned under head coach Bill Self. The two formed a dynamite duo and they led the school to an appearance in the Elite Eight during the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

Self and Gillispie then left together to coach at the University of Illinois, where they yet again took the team to the 2001 NCAA Elite Eight. After their great success, Gillispie helped the Illini land a Top-10 recruiting class. The team advanced to the Sweet 16 the following season, in large part because of Billy Clyde's great tactical skills and ability to lure great talent to campus. 

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Before moving forward, take a step backward and observe what this man accomplished in such a short time span. He helped guide multiple programs to great success in the NCAA tournament while simultaneously recruiting at a high level at schools that were not recruiting hotbeds beforehand. The man accomplished great success in a short period of time, which would be the theme going forward in his rise to stardom.

Known as a hot up-and-comer and a great recruiter, Billy Gillispie finally landed his first major head coaching position by accepting the head coaching job at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2002. His first season for the Miners yielded an ugly 6-24 record, but the coach assembled a Top 25 overall class that promised great things for the program ahead.

Billy accomplished more than he could have dreamed in his second season, as his Miners completed the biggest turnaround of the season and finished 24-8 while taking home the WAC conference title. The startling turnaround earned Gillispie the Texas Coach of the Year award and he was a finalist for National Coach of the Year honors.

Gillispie parlayed this success into a promotion of sorts by leaving UTEP to take over as the head coach for Texas A&M. The Aggies finished 7-21 prior to Billy's hiring but quickly turned things around as he led them to a 21-10 record in the 2004-05 season. The 14-game turnaround was the greatest improvement in the nation, making Gillispie the first head coach in NCAA history to lead the nation's most improved team two years in a row.

He led Texas A&M to the NIT and even won games against ranked in-state rivals Texas and Texas Tech. It was no wonder then that he was a unanimous selection as the Big 12 Coach of the Year.

Following up on his great debut season, Clyde led the Aggies to a 22-9 record in 2005-06 while taking them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade. Gillispie had his program trending upwards heading into his third season as head coach.

The 2006-07 season proved to be magical for Gillispie, as he led Texas A&M one of their greatest years in program history. They were consistently ranked in the Top 10 throughout the year and were boosted by the emergence of Acie Law as a college star. 

A&M even defeated rivals Kansas and Texas in back-to-back games during conference season. The team finished 13-3 in Big 12 play and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, where he would lose a one-point game to John Calipari's Memphis squad.

At this point in his career, it appeared that Billy Clyde had it all figured out and was destined for stardom. He was an elite recruiter, especially so in the state of Texas. He had led incredible turnarounds at schools that had never experienced success like they had when Billy led them. His tough defensive mindset also proved to be successful on the road, in conference play and in the Big Dance.

No one could have guessed that this would be the pinnacle of his coaching career. For such a young coach to reach this amount of success so quickly was incredible to witness, yet sadly it was the crossroads and turning point of his life as a Division I head coach.

Following up on three incredible years at Texas A&M, he left the program and filled the vacancy left by coach Tubby Smith at the University of Kentucky. This was no easy task for Billy; the Kentucky program had been down in recent years and the fans expected nothing less than a rapid turnaround to their former glory days.

At the time, there was no way he could have turned down this opportunity, but in hindsight this was the beginning of the end for the head coach. Simply put, Billy was in over his head and was the wrong fit from day one in Lexington.

He lost his second overall game in embarrassing fashion, falling to lowly Gardner Webb at Rupp Arena by a whopping 16 points. This was followed up later in the non-conference schedule by losing to San Diego, again at Rupp Arena.

However, he did turn around his first season and led the Wildcats to a 12-4 record in SEC conference play and earning honors as the Co-SEC Coach of the Year. 

This good will earned late in his first season would not carry over, as Clyde and the Kentucky program suffered a disastrous 2008-09 campaign. The team lost 14 games, which was the second-highest total in school history. Worst of all, the team failed to reach the NCAA tournament and lost in the third round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The result was deemed unacceptable by the school and its fans.

Gillispie was fired soon after the year was over. Many people believed it was because of his on-court performance, which certainly played a role in the decision to let go of Billy. However, reports and stories began to rise to the surface regarding Gillispie's way of treating players, coaches and media during his time in Lexington.

More and more stories poured in after his departure and many of them foreshadowed what would occur again later at Texas Tech—Gillispie's final head coaching stop. 

One example is how Billy handled injured players. Former walk-on Dusty Mills had this to say in response to allegations that the coach forced players to practice while being hurt:

"I can't really confirm Gillispie technically made them practice. That's not fair for me to say. But it was clear they practiced and were not happy about it. Physically, they were playing in pain, and it was hard to watch at times."

Another example is given by former Kentucky player Mark Krebs, who spoke about Gillispie's tenure in an interview with Kentucky Sports Radio. Krebs today talked about how Billy Clyde pressured Derrick Jasper into returning early from microfracture surgery by openly mocking both Jasper and the trainers/doctors who suggested he was not ready to play.

He went on to say that when the doctors said that Jasper could only play half-court due to his rehab, Gillispie put a piece of tape on the floor and in a mocking tone said, "Well we can only play this from here over because of Derrick." Mark said that the treatment was a major reason for Jasper’s transfer and that Derrick wasnt alone in receiving it.

The stories went well beyond injured players, though. He was known as a tough guy who, according to Krebs, "tears you down and doesn’t bring you back up."

One instance came during a 2009 basketball game against Vanderbilt. At halftime, Billy Gillispie locked center Josh Harrellson in a bathroom stall, then forced him to ride home in the equipment bus after the game was over.

These are just some of the examples of how Billy Clyde went above and beyond with his players. It is for these reasons that the coach was let go in only his second season at Kentucky. It was evident that he was not the right man for the job and it was not just the players who caught on.

Kentucky basketball radio analyst Mike Pratt knew early on that Gillispie would not succeed at the school. In another radio interview with Kentucky Sports Radio, Pratt revealed was the public acknowledgement of something long believed privately—Billy Gillispie called the Texas A&M AD the night before he was introduced at UK and asked for his job back.

Pratt said that he knew Billy Clyde was the wrong fit from the first practice he watched. He looked at Tom Leach and after watching the way he talked to players, he said “this will never work.”

Also of note is Billy's alleged drinking problem. He was known as a heavy consumer of alcohol and had issues controlling his unhealthy habit. In fact, he was arrested for a DUI five months after being let go by UK.

All of this leads up to the present time, in which Gillispie had a tumultuous run at Texas Tech. Following in the footsteps of Bob and Pat Knight, Billy coached one season at the school and finished 8-23. During his 18 months as the men's basketball coach, 15 players have left the program. That is so far beyond acceptable for any coach and is incriminating evidence that Billy's inner demons only grew worse after his time at Kentucky.

More details about his behavior at Texas Tech were made public in recent weeks as players met with the school's athletic director about the treatment that they were receiving from Billy Clyde. Reports of long practices and the abuse of injured players, conjuring up memories of the same type stories that circulated during his days in Lexington.

At the same time, Gillispie was reported to check-in to the Mayo Clinic and has been advised by his doctors to avoid stress for the next 30 days. 

It all came crashing down today as Billy Gillispie officially resigned as head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders. He is citing health reasons, but it is plain and clear that he is leaving because the man has yet to confront his inner demons. 

Instead of facing his faults head on and seeking help, he is refusing to own up to the realization that he has serious emotional and mental issues that need to be sorted out. He is unable to treat his own players as proper human beings, which is the worst thing that you can say about a man who clearly has a deep passion for teaching basketball to young men.

This is a sad and tragic end for the former coach, who was once the brightest prospect in the country and was handed the keys to the most passionate fan base and greatest tradition in college basketball. Unfortunately for him and his players, Gillispie was unable to handle the spotlight and took out his inadequacies as a coach and a person on the very people who relied on him to guide their collegiate athletic careers.

What makes this story even worse is that he had true potential as a coach. Many people swear that he was wonderful at breaking down teams, drawing up plays and making mid-game adjustments. According to Krebs

“He works really hard. He breaks down teams better than I’ve seen any coach do. I learned a great deal from him.”

A similar view is shared by Harrellson, who went from sitting in a bathroom stall under Gillispie to reaching the Final Four under current Kentucky head coach John Calipari,

"Coach Gillispie is a very smart coach. He knew basketball. I don't think he had the best way of teaching it. But I'm very thankful for what he did. He made all of us mentally tough. He made all three of us [Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndrew Liggins] be able to do things we've never been able to do before. It's probably why we're here today, because of how mentally tough he made us." 

Therefore, the story of Billy Gillispie is not one of a hateful and spiteful man who did not know what he was talking about. It was not a story of someone who got lucky and should never have been given the chances that he received.

Rather, it is the story of a man who worked harder than most, recruited the best of the best, maneuvered himself beautifully up the coaching ladder, accomplished some truly incredible things, reached the top quicker than most coaches before him and had great potential and a wonderful basketball mind to share with players for years to come.

Yet once he reached the top, Billy Clyde Gillispie lost his grasp on his inner demons and hurt those people that were closest to him. In the end, he was able to protect his soul from everything except for the one person that would cost him his career, his livelihood and his reputation: himself.

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