You Can’t Go Home Again?

The rise and rise and fall and fall of former UTEP, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Texas Tech basketball coach Billy Gillispie. 

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AP Photo/The Bryan Eagle, Butch Ireland

If you can’t go home again, perhaps you never should have left. 

That’s the overwhelming feeling about college hoops coach Billy Gillispie, who stepped down from his job at Texas Tech last week amidst a combination of personal health concerns, player allegations of mistreatment, and admitted minor NCAA violations of practice time restrictions.

Those are the concrete reasons why Gillispie, who was about to start his second season with the Raiders—after stints at the University of Kentucky, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at El Paso–is out of coaching once again. He also sat out two seasons before taking the Tech job.

But symbolically, as Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! wrote, Gillispie’s fall began when he decided to leave Texas, specifically College Station.

A Graford native, Gillispie was all about his home state, from his playing career (Ranger College, Sam Houston State) to his graduate assistant days (Southwest Texas State) to high school jobs in Copperas Cove and Killeen, among other places. Wrote Wetzel: 

College Station was, quite unbelievably, the 10th Texas town he coached in, in addition to assistant jobs at Tulsa and Illinois.

He was a Texan through and through, known by everyone, liked by almost everyone, capable of recruiting the state like maybe no one ever before him. He was one of them, as down to earth as you could be.

 Once the Texan with the golden touch, Gillispie was now an overbearing, uneven, push-too-hard ball of self-destruction.

According to Wetzel, even UTEP legend Don “The Bear” Haskins thought that Texas A&M would be Gillispie’s place:

Stay at A&M and win forever, Haskins kept telling him. You found your spot.

Which, for Miners fans, has got to be ironic, as some of them still think Gillispie never should have left El Paso. 

That was certainly the storyline when Gillispie took over in 2002. In just his second season, Gillispie got the Miners back to the NCAA tournament, just as Haskins, who had coached UTEP from 1961 to 1999, did in fourteen of his seasons. That includes, of course, the historic 1966 national championship team, when the school was still called Texas Western–still the only time a Texas college team has won it all

I wrote about Gillispie for Texas Monthly in 2003, and even then, coming off a rookie season with a 6-24 record, excitement around the program was so great that during our interview, it didn’t feel ridiculous to ask if the Miners would be able to keep him around. His reply:

It would be hard to find a better basketball community than this. I have a sincere passion about the game of basketball, 24 hours a day, you want to be at a place that, where you work for really good people, where you have a chance to win, and those things, they’re here. It’s very evident those things are here. A lot of guys have gone into places, and then they didn’t stay very long, they moved on, and they wish they were back at certain places that love basketball and have a passion for it. I want to stay here as long as they’ll let me stay. 

It’s the sort of things coaches say until they change their mind, and Gillispie was no different. He went 24-8 and left El Paso for a bigger-conference program, just as his college coaching mentor Bill Self had ditched Tulsa for Illinois.

“For me, Billy G broke our hearts because many of us thought he was the second coming of Haskins,” one UTEP fan put it on a message board not long ago. “I have no hatred for Billy, just wish he never left and I’ve always rooted for him.”

The part that made it sting is that Gillispie left the Miners for, really, an historically worse basketball program. Except that program was attached to one of the state’s two biggest universities and football teams and, in the Big 12, one the country’s two best basketball conferences. 

From 2004- 2007, Gillispie woke that sleeping giant, singlehandedly making Texas A&M hoops whole again. So much so that the biggest school in all of college basketball came calling. Kentucky, as many observers pointed out, is such a giant of the sport it was once able to wrest away a coach (Rick Pitino) from the New York Knicks.

Again, Gillispie could look to Self as an example. When Roy Williams left Kansas for North Carolina, Self left Illinois for Kansas. There’s always more money to be made with such a move, but really, coaches do it for the challenge, and because the athletic department budget and the prestige and the brand name means you have a better chance to win it all (remember, UTEP is still the only Texas school to win the Final Four; Kentucky’s done it eight times). You want to win, you can’t not take the job. 

But it was a bad fit and a huge mistake. Gillispie was apparently not willing to embrace the politics and celebrity that came with the UK job, whereas in College Station, there was a comfort zone to being number two behind the football team. He won, but not enough. He clashed with players, just as he would do in Lubbock. And he continued to battle an apparent alcohol problem–he pled guilty to a DUI in Kentucky in 2009, his third arrest in ten years. 

UK and Gillispie parted ways, and after a reported rehab stint in the John Lucas After Care program in Houston, Gillispie was back on the market. By then, he’d also been victimized in the apparent Ponzi scheme of AAU basketball coach David Salinas.

With the help of Salinas, Gillispie allegedly pursued the Houston job a full year before it was actually open… or so says former UH and Texas coach Tom Penders, whose September Twitter comments on the subject (kicking Gillispie when he was down, because he thought the guy deserved it) included what might be one of the all-time greatest tweets in sports, as far as bluntness:

But when Penders resigned in 2010, Gillispie actually was a candidate. UTEP also considered bringing him back. And Tech ultimately got him.

Richard Justice, then of the Houston Chronicle, first warned against UH hiring Gillispie, then cautiously celebrated Tech’s choice: 

Some of the people who worked with Billy Clyde at Texas A&M say terrible things about him. About his character. About his personal behavior.

I don’t know if Texas Tech now has the Big 12′s best coach, but Billy Gillispie takes a backseat to no one. All he needs to do is manage himself a bit better. If he hasn’t taken a long look at himself after two years away, he probably never will.

Then, when the Tech news broke this month, Justice went back to his first position:

So now, before the current basketball season has even begun, Gillispie’s done. Some feel that the allegations of mistreatment levelled by Gillispie’s players aren’t a big deal. “Some of the same stuff he was celebrated for at A&M,” opined Brent Zwerneman of the San Antonio Express-News.

But since Tech is the school that canned football coach Mike Leach for an alleged player abuse incident, and with the players speaking publically about things that are usually left inside the locker room, there was almost no way Tech could keep him. That Gillispie is apparently suffering from real stress and health issues (at one point he entered the Mayo Clinic) only delayed the process. 

“Five years ago, he was a coach on the rise ready to ascend to the peak of his profession. Two years ago, he was a risky but intriguing option for a program seeking to rebuild,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg. “And now, between fighting personal problems and crashing and burning at his last two jobs, he’s virtually untouchable and unlikely to resurface as a Division I head coach again.”

Maybe, but I’m more inclined to agree with Dana O’Neil of ESPN, who wrote:

The “just show me the final result” world of sports is strangely the epicenter of do-overs. Sinners are forgiven their transgressions, penitents given a shot at redemption.

Anyone who thinks Billy Gillispie won’t be given a chance to coach again hasn’t been paying attention to our history.

Not to speculate about any places where there aren’t actually jobs open (since that’s every place right now), but if the Texas State Bobcats could resurrect the football career of Dennis Franchione, who was also in “you can go home again” mode, well, one just never knows. Sam Houston State could also find itself with a vacancy if longtime head coach Bob Marlin ever leaves.

But first Gillispie really has to do the work to figure out how to be a great, obsessive coach, but also a more balanced human being.  As O’Neil also wrote:

He’ll get another chance, but the question is, who will he be then?

If the man who re-emerges from what should be a life-changing crash-and-burn is unapologetic and unchanged, this entire debacle was really for nothing.

But if Gillispie can recalibrate both his life and his health — if he can actually partner some serious soul-searching introspection with his coaching acumen — maybe there will be a winner in all of this after all.

Which takes me back to something Gillispie said to me back in El Paso, about what it means to be around Don Haskins: 

He knows so much about the game, but more importantly he knows so much about life, getting the most out of people, caring about people, those kind of things.

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