Billy Gillispie’s End at Texas Tech Marks the Nadir of a Volatile Coaching SagaPosted by Chris Johnson on September 21st, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
It was never a question of if, but when for Billy Gillipsie, the embattled former Texas Tech coach who on Thursday officially submitted his resignation from the program. The immediate focus will be on Gillispie’s recent history with the Red Raiders. Namely, the litany of dishonorable allegations – from his inability to get along with assistants and program personnel, to his abusive treatment of players, to his insensitivity for practice time limitations, and a score of other damaging accusations prompting a mass mutiny of players and a meeting with athletic director Kirby Hocutt – chronicled in a CBSSports.com report earlier this month. But it bears remembering that Gillispie was once regarded with high esteem in the college hoops coaching world, a rising star who within the last decade engineered miraculous turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M before landing arguably the best coaching position in the sport at Kentucky. Gillispie cited health concerns for his resignation and Hocutt confirmed as much in a statement. But with the mountain of charges piling up against him in recent weeks, his dismissal, whether voluntary of forced, was an eventuality borne of irreparable public and internal denigration, much less a matter of medical distress. Gillispie’s demise in Lubbock completes one of the more unexpected coaching declines in recent memory. For a young leader as successful and precocious and rapidly ascendant as Gillispie once was, it’s shocking to consider his career arc would reach such an abrupt and unforgiving conclusion. He may yet resurface in the coaching ranks, but this latest divorce may have damaged his reputation nearly beyond repair.
The irony of Gillispie’s downfall is that the brunt of the criticism – his unrelenting intensity, insular if awkward personality, an almost predisposed fanaticism with the game itself – that led to his exit is what propelled his early coaching rise. Gillispie’s coaching acumen was never in question. From an X’s & O’s perspective, few could match his tactical intuition. Gillispie knew the game, knew it so well he was able to jump-start a long-dormant UTEP program from its six-win doldrums (2002-03) to a 24-win campaign and NCAA Tournament berth in just one year’s time. He continued his ascendancy of the coaching ladder at Texas A&M, where he revitalized a stalled-out hoops program of a football-centric institution with recruiting savvy and doctrinal mastery. Two rapid rebuilds, both at programs lacking the baseline ingredients for immediate success – Gillispie’s work at those places was unprecedented. This is what made his hiring at Kentucky in 2007 such a promising endeavor. In Lexington, where the hoops culture runs deep in a basketball-crazed state, winning – and recruiting the best high school players to facilitate that winning – is more than anything a function of juggling various pressures, of enduring the very brightest of spotlight and the pressing demand for national dominance. It was here, at the mecca of college basketball pageantry, that Gillispie cracked. The tendencies and personality traits that defined Gillispie’s coaching style and keyed his climb up the coaching ladder, proved incompatible with the challenge of Big Blue Nation. Two years, zero NCAA Tournament wins, a prompt but expected firing, and a litany of accusations from players and program personnel (not to mention his third drunken DUI arrest since 1999) about his corrosive interactions with peers, oppressive management of players and generally unproductive behavior throughout brought Gillispie’s once booming career trajectory to halt. But even after his fail at Kentucky, it was fair to assume, given his previous success, that Gillispie simply wasn’t prepared for the rigors of the nation’s most demanding coaching job, that he fell into the wrong situation, a victim of circumstance as much as his own coaching shortcomings.
The Texas Tech flameout proves those concerns were not at all unfounded. As much as the hiring made absolute sense – Gillispie had strong recruiting ties in Texas and a proven track record of leading turnarounds at stagnant programs within the state – the glaring personality flaws the two-year Kentucky experiment exposed stayed with him. His short stint in Lubbock was a mere continuation of a descent that began during his time with the Wildcats. It’s a distressing culmination for a coach with so much promise and so much inherent ability. Whatever your take on Gillispie’s resignation – the last three weeks have spawned a diverse array of opinions, both positive and negative, running the gamut from coaches to players to media members and program staffers – it’s hard not to harbor at least some measure of sympathy for his situation. Gillispie’s bouts with high blood pressure, severe headaches and kidney problems caused doctors to issue a “no stress for 30 days” proclamation. While his health problems may have ultimately delayed this inevitable outcome, Gillispie had clearly reached a breaking point, with a confluence of factors (medical disarray, national scrutiny, etc.) adding to his plight.
After weeks of enduring what amounted to a national bombardment of his coaching tactics, dictatorial commands, and a series of internal episodes leaked through players and colleagues, perhaps cutting ties, executing a clean break before this messy situation got any worse, was the best course of action both personally and for the program as a whole. Texas Tech can rebound, even if the stigma of Gillispie’s tenure constrains the breadth of its coaching search. But Gillispie, a superb coaching mind if there ever was one, needs to undergo a full-scale moral cleansing before he can even consider a return to coaching. He needs to rediscover a healthy balance between the coaching intensity that defined his heyday and the joy for the game largely absent during his decline, and learn how to channel that towards his players and job responsibilities. Provided he can get his health in order, Gillispie’s career can be salvaged. This is likely the nadir of his head coaching adventures, but Gillispie’s future in the coaching profession is not lost. Perilous as his return to the college hoops scene may be, do not rule out a coaching rebirth for Gillispie at some point down the road. Time away from the game to sort out his medical problems and to reconstitute his personal and mental makeup into someone who enjoys his profession and the people supporting him will afford Gillispie the opportunity to re-establish a favorable outlook both in basketball and life in general.