College Station, Texas Billy Gillispie never doubted he would win at Texas A&M. Few thought it would happen so soon.
"We exceeded our expectations," Gillispie said. "But expectations were fairly low here for a good reason."
Indeed. Gillispie, who came last March to Texas A&M from Texas-El Paso, has engineered a remarkable turnaround at what was one of the nation's worst big-time college basketball programs.
Coming off a winless record in Big 12 Conference play last season, the Aggies (19-8, 8-8) have turned themselves into improbable contenders for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. A&M's 12-win improvement is tied with San Diego for the biggest swing in Division One.
For his role in bringing a taste of success to a traditionally downtrodden program, Gillispie was named the AP's Big 12 coach of the year Tuesday. Gillispie was an overwhelming winner among the panel of sportswriters that regularly cover the league, earning 21 of 24 votes. Texas Tech's Bobby Knight received two votes, and Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson had one.
"It's always nice to receive recognition," Gillispie said. "But I've got more to learn than anyone in the league. I'm not going to fool myself into thinking I'm better than I really am."
Before arriving in College Station, Gillispie already had proven he could turn things around quickly.
At UTEP, Gillispie finished 6-24 in his first season but went 24-8 the next year and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. That tied for the greatest one-year turnaround in college basketball history.
He headed to UTEP from the University of Illinois, where he assisted Kansas University coach Bill Self.
"I'm very happy and proud for him," Self said of his pupil. "He's got them playing as hard or harder than any team in the league."
Prior to Gillispie taking over, the Aggies only had one winning season in the past 15 years and one NCAA Tournament berth in the past 25. UTEP, at least, won a national title in 1966 under Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins.
The Aggies finished last in the Big 12 in three of the previous four seasons, including a humiliating 0-16 mark in league play last season under former coach Melvin Watkins. That record included two embarrassing losses to in-state rival Baylor, a team filled out mostly with walk-ons and devastated by offseason scandal.
But Gillispie, a native of the tiny West Texas town of Graford, saw potential at a school that had excellent facilities but had almost always treated basketball as little more than a distraction after football season. Self saw that potential, too.
"I told him he had to do it," Self said of Gillispie taking the A&M job. "They were struggling. I thought, like UTEP, they could get it turned quickly. It's a perfect fit for him. I thought this was one if he didn't take it I thought he'd regret it later."
Self said Gillispie was at home coaching in Texas.
"He is the best recruiter in the state of Texas," said Self. "It's what I've thought from Day One, and there are so many guys in Texas. He knows everybody in Texas."
And everybody in Texas now is talking about Gillispie.
A&M is the seventh seed in this week's Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, and will face Kansas State on Thursday. With another win or two, the Aggies could put themselves in a position to go to the NCAAs for the first time since 1987.
"I think the future looks bright," Gillispie said. "We've done some things here that nobody thought we could do. I'd like to think we're just getting started."
And he'd like to thank KU's Self for helping him build the program.
"He's my best friend. He's number one," Gillispie said of Self. "I have a great situation right now because of him, and I just love him."