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Archive for Sunday, April 8, 2007

Gillispie ready for daunting challenge

New coach blissfully unfazed by expectations that await at Kentucky

April 8, 2007

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— Billy Gillispie doesn't mind being second-guessed.

Yet it's hard to nitpick the way he resurrected the programs at UTEP and Texas A&M.

Leading the Miners and the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament is one thing. At Kentucky, he knows that won't be enough. His goal is to lead the Wildcats back to the Final Four for the first time in a decade.

"This is why you want to come to the best place in college basketball," he said. "The tougher it is, the better I like it."

It's a toughness he developed as a self-described "bad" basketball player growing up in tiny Graford, Texas, a town too small to field a football team.

It didn't take Gillispie long to realize his success would come from working the sidelines. He was a graduate assistant at Texas State in 1982, then spent the next 20 years working his way from successful high school coach to an assistant under Bill Self at Tulsa and Illinois.

Gillispie's work ethic endeared him to Self, one of Gillispie's closest friends. The two talked around 4 a.m. Friday morning just minutes after Gillispie agreed to fill the seat formerly held by Adolph Rupp and Rick Pitino.

"I think the people in Kentucky are getting a great coach, a great person, a tireless worker and they will enjoy watching his style of play," Self said.

It's a style that translated to quick success at UTEP and Texas A&M. He joined the Miners in 2002 just weeks before the season started. After enduring a 6-24 year in 2002-03, he led UTEP to a 24-8 season the next year and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Texas A&M came calling next, and success soon followed. The Aggies were picked to finish last in the Big 12 in 2004-05 after going winless in conference play the season before Gillispie's arrival. Instead, they managed a 21-10 mark and a spot in the National Invitational Tournament. The next season the Aggies made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years.

It was enough for Texas A&M to commit millions of dollars to revamping Reed Arena - a rare expense at a school where football has long been king. Gillispie followed by leading the Aggies to a 27-7 record this season and a spot in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the first time since 1980.

Though he agreed in principle to a new contract that would have made him one of the Big 12's highest-paid coaches following the season, he never signed the deal, opening the door for Kentucky.

"The work ethic, the recruiting. He's got the makeup you need to be successful here," said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart.

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