It began when he thought the bluegrass was greener. So he left his home state of Texas, left a program he built from the dirt up, and left the person and coach he used to be.
You cannot describe what happened to Billy Gillispie as just a downfall, which makes it sound like a snowflake fluttering to the pavement, melting on impact. Even meteors don’t crash as fast or as hard as a guy who was the hottest college basketball coach in the country just five and a half years ago, only to self-destruct and implode right back in Texas -- the only place that offered a chance for resurrection.
Gillispie resigned at Texas Tech Thursday night after one season and eight wins, citing health concerns, but of course that was the ending we all saw coming. With the school investigating charges that Gillispie was a creep to certain players and even his own staff, the trail he left behind was too messy and fraught for him to whisk clean. And you know what’s really odd? Apparently Bob Knight was two tons of fun at Tech compared to Gillispie. Yes, Knight, the poster child of bullydom, was knee-slappingly hilarious in comparison, the life of the frat party.
What the hell went wrong? Well, ego run amok, for sure. Ambition and greed, yes, some of that too. And abuse of power, absolutely. As Rich Rodriguez is recovering nicely from flaming out at Michigan, with his Arizona football team sitting pretty at 3-0, his basketball equivalent isn’t so fortunate. Gillispie went from coaching at Kentucky to watching his career curl up in a ball, and there are a handful of folks who, if they aren’t exactly celebrating his demise, are satisfied nonetheless that Gillispie got his comeuppance.
It was either resign or get fired, and the path Gillispie chose was safer. Or maybe more cowardly, because this way, he doesn’t have to answer the allegations of player mistreatment in his program. He cited his health -- stress, mainly -- as the reason for stepping away, but what about the mental health of those players he held under his thumb at Tech? Well, they’re on their own.
He turned around two programs in Texas, first at UTEP, where the school went from six wins to 24, then at A&M, where he performed a near-miracle at a football school. The Aggies’ basketball program was a step above intramurals when Gillispie arrived and pulled it from the Stone Age. Texas A&M was 0-16 in the Big 12 and Gillispie won 21 games right from jump. Something special was brewing in College Station, made even more so by an affable home-grown coach, not even 50 years old, who could keep kids from Houston and Dallas from leaving, and possibly balance the athletic scales at A&M.
The serene atmosphere he created was interrupted permanently when Kentucky came calling in Gucci loafers. The money, the tradition, the glare, the sound of Dickie V. screaming, it was all too irresistible for Gillispie, and you can understand. It happens often in college sports, where a coach creates a buzz and then makes a beeline. He could’ve stayed at A&M and had a few rebuilding seasons, and folks would be too consumed by football to notice or care much. He had only mild expectations to reach every year at A&M and an athletic department that would leave him be, yet Gillispie chased the potential for greatness.
But when you reach for the brass ring, something else better be made of brass, too. Kentucky is one of those jobs where you enjoy filet mignon or get eaten alive. And in Lexington, you can still find remains of Gillispie’s bones if you look hard enough.He lasted two years. He went 40-27. Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 17 years, which in that state is like going a year without holding the Derby. Lawsuits followed. And ugliness.
He went from $2.7 million a year at Kentucky to $800,000 a year at Tech. Instead of following Rupp and Pitino, he had to follow Knight and Knight, the bumbling father-son coaching duo that failed to instill any passion for basketball in West Texas. He was back home, and that was important. Tech didn’t demand miracles from Gillispie, only that he restore athletic pride at a school still reeling from the debacle surrounding former football coach Mike Leach, who had been accused of, among other things, showing no sympathy toward a player dealing with a concussion.
But there were disturbing signs, almost from the get-go. The symptoms from his spectacular crash at Kentucky seemed to affect Gillispie more than anyone knew. He was a proud coach, loved and respected at A&M, charming, whose future path was laid with gold bricks. He had never failed before; he was the coach who fixed the failures of others. So this was a new experience for Gillispie.
Before taking the Tech job, Gillispie had his third drunken driving arrest in 10 years.
Last October, Tech exceeded the practice limit set forth by the NCAA. And then: allegations of injured players being forced to practice, 15 players leaving the program since he arrived, and staff members complaining about promises never kept. That and a lousy season made one year in Lubbock more uncomfortable than two years in Lexington.
He wasn’t winning or influencing people. He wasn’t the same Billy Gillispie who coached in Texas years ago. He was caving, and so was everything around him. Right before a showdown meeting with AD Kirby Hocutt a few weeks ago, Gillispie was suddenly hospitalized for six days for stress-related symptoms, then took a leave of absence after a second 911 call was placed form his home. And suddenly, the coach who knew all the right plays to call and all the right buttons to push as a rising star at Texas A&M was known for another kind of strategy: his own exit.
This can be traced back to the biggest decision in his life, when he reached for the top and ultimately found the bottom instead. His story isn’t the saddest in college basketball history, only the latest in a world consumed with money and power and corruption. There will be others like Gillispie, in one form or another. Gillispie himself will get another chance, because his previous work at A&M will hypnotize an AD who desperately wants to win, and our sports society is forgiving.
Instead of The Legend of Billy The Kid, which seemed certain five and a half years ago, college basketball got a lesson instead: The essence of a coach and a man is revealed when he falls, not rises. Billy Gillispie’s career may not be dead, but for the moment it’s definitely resting in pieces.