The Kentucky Wildcats got their man. Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie took center stage today in Lexington as the new head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. Reporters did not take long to try to find out whether he really knew what he was getting into with this job. Gillispie didn't back down, "The tougher it is the better I like it," Gillispie said.
"He has been called a miracle worker at Texas A&M," said University President Lee Todd.
"That's why you come to the best place in college basketball," he added. "In my years as a head coach, my legacy has been defined by the tough times. When you talk about tough I look at my opponents having to play in front of the 24,000 fans Kentucky put in front of them. I see it as an unbelievable positive."
Things moved fast after Florida coach Billy Donovan announced Thursday morning that he was going to be staying with the Gators, but Gillispie was not at all offended that he appeared to be the 'second choice.' "I was second choice?," Gillispie quipped, "Heck, I would have been happy just to have been in the top seven or eight."
Kentucky announced today that Gillispie's contract was almost finalized and would be a 7-year arrangement for $2.3 million per year. The package includes incentives of about $500,000 to $850,000.
"Billy Gillispie has all the qualities we were looking for in Kentucky's next head coach," said University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart. "He is a tireless worker, a great recruiter and is passionate about winning and winning the right way. He will make the Commonwealth proud both as a coach and a person."
Gillispie appeared happy but nervous in his first interface with the media, but also very humble, referring to himself as a 'good old country boy' "I have always wanted to be a basketball coach since I was seven or eight years old. And this is a situation that you never think of as possible but through hard work, dedication and luck I sitting here in the best position that you could ever have in college basketball and I am glad, proud, honored and all the other good words you could say."
Gillispie joins the Wildcats after two consecutive years that can only be considered as "down years" by Kentucky fans. Joining programs that he has had to rebuild is nothing new for Gillispie, however. His first head coaching job was at Texas El-Paso in 2002 where he took over the reigns of a program that had been depleted. After just one rebuilding year, Gillispie guided the Miners to a 24-8 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance. The season represented an 18-game improvement from the previous year.
At Texas A&M, Gillispie engineered an even more incredible turnaround. In just three seasons at Texas A&M, he engineered one of the most amazing turnarounds in college basketball history. In Gillispie's first season at A&M in 2004-05, the Aggies were picked to finish last in the Big 12, but opened the season with a perfect 11-0 start, finishing 21-10. Gillispie became the only coach in NCAA history to coach the most improved team in consecutive seasons.
The following season A&M finished 22-9 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 years. The big turnaround culminated in a 27-7 season, a number 9 national ranking, a school-best #3 seeding in the NCAA Tournament and a Sweet 16 appearance, A&M's first since 1980.
In the 2006-07 season, Gillispie, who was a finalist for the 2007 Naismith National Coach of the Year and Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year led the Aggies to a school record 27-7 record which included a school best No. 3 seed in the NCAA's, in which they advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1980. Prior to this past season, A&M had not been in the top ten since 1979. Gillispie was honored as Big 12 Coach of the Year by several major newspapers and was selected Texas College Coach of the Year by the TABC.
Looking to the future, Gillispie seemed anxious to begin, referencing the current players, who were on hand at the press conference. "As soon at this press conference is over, we'll start," said Gillispie, "I am their coach and I hope they will think of me that way."
The new coach promised a style of play that would be dictated by the players, "I love to play heads up, man to man defense and run. I love to press full court, but really the players we have dictate how you can play. But we want to hit them hard and fast. We want them to leave by halftime."Gillispie's romance period will be a short one, as pressing matters are ahead, and the April 11 signing period is just around the corner. The team just lost three seniors, and its leading scorer and rebounder, Randolph Morris. But this coach is no stranger to recruiting. The 47-year-old Gillispie has built a national reputation as one of the country's best recruiters. His first recruiting class at UTEP featured a pair of first-team junior college All-Americans — Filiberto Rivera and Omar Thomas — and earned a top 25 ranking.
At A&M, Gillispie signed three consecutive top-25 classes.