The hiring of Billy Clyde Gillispie was one of the most obvious slam dunks in Texas Tech sports history. So was his “resignation.”
As it became clear that Pat Knight was in too deep coaching in the Big 12, all eyes in Raiderland settled longingly on a native west Texan who had established himself as arguably one of the best college basketball coaches in America. Happily enough, this coach, known on the Internet simply as BCG, was also fully available to take over for Knight the Younger.
Gillispie, after authoring masterful rebuilding jobs at UTEP and Texas A&M, had been fired from the University of Kentucky. After a two-year caesura in his coaching career, Gillispie was ready to get back in the saddle. And what better place than Texas Tech in Lubbock, a mere three hours north of his hometown of Abilene?
It certainly looked like a match made in hardwood heaven. The Red Raider program had been down and out for several years, and Gillispie was a coach with a proven reputation for reviving flat-lined programs.
But even better for Gillispie and the Red Raiders, Texas Tech was a program with a reasonably good history of winning, and its facilities were among the best in the nation. Bob Knight, the opposing coach for Tech’s opening game in the palatial United Spirit Arena, took the Red Raiders to the Sweet 16 as recently as 2005. There was every reason to believe Billy Gillispie, still a reasonably young coach, would do at least as well. In short, everybody was onboard with this hire.
And the euphoria surrounding Gillispie’s appointment totally overshadowed any concerns over certain worrisome elements in the coach’s past.
For instance, Gillispie was a confirmed alcoholic. He had been arrested three times for driving under the influence, and in 2009 had checked himself into the John Lucas After Care Program for treatment of alcoholism.
Furthermore, Gillispie’s tenure at Kentucky was rocky. Despite coaching what many consider to be the premiere basketball program in America, Gillispie concluded his time in the Blue Grass State with a modest 40-27 record. The 14 losses his 2008-09 team suffered were second most in program history.
What’s more, Gillispie and the Kentucky administration didn’t exactly enjoy the warmest of relationships. When UK fired Gillispie, it cited “incompatibility,” and more specifically noted unresolved contractual issues between the coach and the university.
But incompatibility can be a euphemism for many other things. And in Gillispie’s case, the firing was probably about more than just contracts and the win-loss record.
But such blemishes seemed niggling compared to the potential Gillispie brought to the Tech program. Almost everybody with a stake in Red Raider basketball saw Gillispie’s arrival as the first step on a straight road to hoops glory never before attained in the school’s history.
Alas, it all went terribly wrong.
Coaching an underpowered squad in 2011-2012, Gillispie went 8-23 and 1-17 in conference play. Despite that dreadful record, most were willing to give Gillispie a Mulligan. Nobody leveled serious criticism at the coach; everybody blamed a lack of talent instead.
Following that awful season, Gillispie and his staff signed a talented if checkered recruiting class. It was chock full of talent, but that talent came with baggage of all sorts. The class, in other words, resembled the coach.
But even as Wannah Bail, the class’ most lauded player left the program, Gillispie himself was disintegrating. He egregiously violated NCAA rules regulating practice duration, and, according to testimony from numerous former and current players, went far beyond the pale in his treatment of players.
The coup de grace came last week when Gillispie announced his resignation as Tech’s head coach for “health reasons.” Thus ended Gillispie’s shockingly short and unsuccessful reign as coach of Red Raider basketball.
Without knowing all the whys and wherefores, it is almost certain Gillispie’s resignation was not entirely voluntary. His violation of NCAA rules, as well as the allegations of player mistreatment provided Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt with the perfect opportunity to eliminate a problem within the athletic department.
Without going into personal details, there was evidence of erratic, irrational behavior from Gillispie that extended beyond the basketball court. And Hocutt almost certainly knew of much more than any sports writer. Hocutt thus probably viewed Gillispie as a burning fuse that needed to be snuffed.
We may also suggest that Gillispie’s coaching skills had deteriorated following the heydays at UTEP and Texas A&M. Certainly there is nothing in his final three seasons as a head coach to suggest he was a shadow of the phenom who resurrected the Miners and Aggies.
All of which leads one to believe that Gillispie’s downfall coincided with his appointment as head coach at Kentucky.
Gillispie’s roots were humble. Born in Abilene to the son of a cattle truck driver, Gillispie was raised in the tiny town of Graford. He once stated that he never expected to go beyond being a high school or perhaps junior college basketball coach. Yet, at the age of 47, with his arrival at Kentucky, Gillispie had risen to the very pinnacle of a lucrative, competitive and egomaniacal profession.
Perhaps Gillispie’s improbable rise was more than he could handle. Not everybody deals well with fame and fortune. Perhaps these dual-edged daggers cut something loose inside of Gillispie.
His demise was assuredly as precipitous and startling as his ascent. But with the benefit of hindsight, we should also have more readily acknowledged that Gillispie’s self-immolation was a possibility from the outset.