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
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
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.