Coaching an obsession for UK’s Gillispie
Passion has led to professional success, personal defeats for former A&M coach
LEXINGTON, KY. ? Winifred “Wimpy” Gillispie realized early on that her only son, Billy Clyde, was not going to be a normal Texan.
“When he was little, he always chose tennis shoes over boots,” Wimpy Gillispie said Friday of the middle of her five children. “That boy always loved basketball.”
Texas might be the capital of Planet Pigskin, but Billy Gillispie – who Friday inherited, arguably, the most prestigious coaching job in college basketball – grew up in a very atypical Lone Star town.
With a population of some 578, Graford, Texas, was too small to field much of a football team. So it didn’t try.
“They didn’t have enough money at the high school there to buy helmets, so (football) went out the door,” Billy Gillispie recalled Friday. “They’ve never played there and I don’t know if they ever will.”
The little town some 65 miles west of Fort Worth might as well have been in Kentucky. Its heart beat to the bounce, bounce, bounce of the basketball.
“Kids there aren’t very well-rounded,” Gillispie says. “They don’t learn how to play soccer. They don’t learn how to play tic-tac-toe or anything else. They learn how to play basketball.”
In five short years, Billy Gillispie has gone from first-year college head coach with a 6-24 team at Texas-El Paso (UTEP) to standing in the shoes of Rupp, Hall, Pitino and Smith as head coach at the University of Kentucky.
To understand the unquenchable passion for basketball and the toil-around-the-clock work ethic that allowed the 47-year-old divorced coach to pull it off, you have to start with the lessons of Graford.
Always a worker
Clyde Gillispie drove a cattle truck and, later, worked in the oil fields. Working hard was a way of life in the Gillispie home.
Even now, at age 74, Wimpy Gillispie still works full-time in the Morrow Grocery in Graford.
Asked Friday what the reaction had been in the little town to their native son landing the Kentucky job, Wimpy said: “I don’t know. I’ve been working.”
“Which is what I need to be doing right now,” she said, ending a phone interview.
At about age 7, Billy Gillispie says, he knew he wanted to be a basketball coach. However, by the time he was in college, he wasn’t a good enough player to enter coaching off his reputation.
So to help his son out, Clyde Gillispie called on the solitary connection he had in college basketball. Bob Derryberry was a Graford man who had gone to high school with Clyde.
He was also head coach at Sam Houston State.
“Billy’s dad called me – this was 1980 – and Clyde said ‘I’m sending my boy down to Sam Houston to help you,”‘ Derryberry said Friday. “Clyde was always a bit of a character. So I said, ‘Good, send him right on.’ And the first time I met Billy was when he showed up.”
Billy Gillispie spent a year as team manager for Derryberry at Sam Houston. The coach then moved to Southwest Texas State (now Texas State). Gillispie went with him and spent three years (1982-85) as a graduate assistant.
The hyper-intense coach and brash public personality of the Billy Gillispie of today were not on display then, Derryberry says. “The thing I remember about him, whatever his job was, he got it done. I never had to tell him twice.
“But he was real reserved. Not nearly as forceful as the guy you see now. But, getting into coaching, it tends to change everyone.”
It was in a health class, while Derryberry and Gillispie were at Sam Houston, that Gillispie met a cheerleader named Misty Maulding. In 1985, they married.
In the folksy, self-deprecating way he has perfected, Gillispie likes to joke that Misty was the reason he became a head coach.
In 1987, Billy was an assistant basketball coach at Killeen High School. Misty was a teacher and drill-team instructor at Copperas Cove High.
When Copperas Cove had an opening for a head coach, that school’s athletics director, Hal Mumme hired Gillispie.
“My ex-wife was such a good drill-team coach, they didn’t want to lose her, so they had to hire me,” Gillispie jokes. “That’s why Hal made me a head coach.”
Path to big time
Early on, it seemed that successful Texas high school coach was going to be the destiny of Billy Gillispie. He claims he was OK with that.
But after three stints as Texas high school coach, he broke into the college ranks as a junior-college assistant at South Plains (Texas).
In 1994, that led him onto the staff at Baylor. And his work there in three years attracted the attention of the coach who would become one of college basketball’s fastest risers.
Bill Self hired Gillispie onto his staff at Tulsa. After Self – now the Kansas University coach – parlayed his success there into the Illinois job, he took Gillispie with him.
In Champaign, Gillispie’s dogged recruiting began to earn him a national profile within the college basketball community.
His work led a talented Texas high school prospect – Deron Williams – to leave the Lone Star State for Illinois.
Williams turned out to be the best player on the Illinois team that reached the 2005 national title game (for Self’s successor, Bruce Weber).
“I liked him, my mom loved him,” Williams, now a star with the Utah Jazz, said Friday of Gillispie. “She still talks to him now. I still talk to him. If I had any problems or issues or anything, I could call him up right now.”
Gillispie’s rising stock eventually caught the eye of UTEP. That school – which was known as Texas Western when it beat Kentucky in the famous 1966 NCAA Tournament finals -was in the market for a head coach.
“A lot of assistants, they aren’t really coaches, they’re one-dimensional recruiters,” Bob Stull, UTEP’s athletic director, said Friday. “But the deeper I went with Billy, he had thought about every situation I brought up. He had been preparing himself to be a head coach.”
In 2002, Gillispie became UTEP’s head coach. With only eight scholarship players, the Miners went 6-24.
But even in that first year, Gillispie impressed one person in El Paso who knows a thing or two about coaching basketball.
Don Haskins, coach of those 1966 NCAA champions, was a regular at Gillispie’s practices.
“The hardest practices I’ve ever watched,” Haskins said Friday.
Even tougher than the famously grueling practices Haskins was known to run?
“I’m not sure they weren’t,” Haskins said. “I wouldn’t want to play for him.”
But Haskins admired Gillispie’s capacity for work. “I don’t know when he sleeps,” Haskins said.
All that hard work – and one year of recruiting – quickly paid off for Gillispie. His second UTEP team improved by an astounding 18 games, going 24-8 and earning an NCAA bid.
That earned the UTEP coach a big-money gig at a state school long known as a graveyard of basketball coaches.
Going to a school that had gone 0-16 in Big 12 play the season before (7-21 overall), Gillispie nevertheless believed he could win at Texas A&M.
The cost of success
Gillispie’s singular focus on his career has become legendary.
In 2004, when his UTEP team earned its NCAA bid, Gillispie invited his players and reporters to his home for a Selection Sunday party.
When his guests arrived, they noticed that Gillispie’s home was half-furnished – and it still had a Christmas tree up.
The coach is said to drink Dr. Pepper and eat peanut butter crackers for breakfast. It is said to be iffy whether you will ever find actual food in Billy Gillispie’s refrigerator.
His marriage ended after eight years.
In newspaper profiles, the coach frequently cites his own job obsession as the prime factor in the failure of the marriage.
“I didn’t do a good enough job because of my lack of (life) balance,” Gillispie told The Dallas Morning News. He also told the Dallas paper that although he hoped to remarry someday, he isn’t a good marital prospect at present “because I have some other things that I want to be more committed to.”
The coach’s ex-wife has re-married and has children. But she and Gillispie appear to be on good terms. Published reports in Texas during the 2007 NCAA Tournament quoted Misty Meyer – the former Mrs. Gillispie – as saying she regularly watched Texas A&M’s games on TV.
“Coach Gillispie is nothing but a first-class act with a heart for his players and a love of basketball,” Meyer told the El Paso Times. “I can say this having been his friend for more than 20 years, as well as his ex-wife.”
It is often said of people who work extraordinarily hard that they tend to play hard, too.
In 1999, Gillispie was charged with driving while intoxicated in Tulsa. Eventually, that charge was reduced to reckless driving. In 2003, during his first season at UTEP, Gillispie was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Eventually, those charges were dismissed.
“I’ve made some mistakes in my life,” Gillispie said. “Those, obviously, are decisions I’d like to have back.”
Road to Kentucky
Gillispie’s success at Texas A&M was immediate and stunning.
The 7-21 team he inherited went 21-10 in Gillispie’s first year. In 2006, A&M went 22-9, upset Syracuse in the first round of the NCAAs, and lost a heartbreaker to eventual Final Four entrant LSU in the second round.
This past season, led by All-America guard Acie Law IV, the Aggies advanced to the sweet 16 for the first time since 1980. The Texas A&M coach became one of the hottest commodities in college basketball.
He was said to be Arkansas’ top choice to replace Stan Heath. Texas A&M offered him a new contract (at $1.75 million a year) that would have made Billy Clyde Gillispie of Graford, Texas, one of the highest-paid coaches in the country.
Instead, once Billy Donovan turned down the chance to lead college basketball’s winningest program last Thursday, Billy Gillispie hopped a plane for Lexington.
“He felt this was the chance of a lifetime to go to Kentucky,” Self said in a release.
The guy who grew up in the one Texas town that loves basketball like Kentucky should feel right at home.