After winning his first-ever postseason game as an NCAA Division I head coach, then-43-year-old Texas native Billy Gillispie took his seat in the interview room at the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament in Tulsa. It was March 2003, and Gillispie’s UTEP Miners, who’d won five games all season and finished last in the league, had no business pulling off an upset that day—especially since the coach had benched junior point guard Chris Craig for arriving late to the team’s pregame shootaround.
But the Miners did win, and Gillispie afterward began to explain his tough love. “This is at a critical time in our season and we are not only working for the moment, we are also working for the future,” he said. Then, suddenly overcome with emotion, he stopped talking. After the lengthy pause, he continued: “Nobody tries harder than Chris, and it was hard to leave him over there on the side.”
Last month, 63-year-old Billy Gillispie, now head coach of Tarleton State men’s basketball, took his seat in the interview room of the WAC tournament played in Las Vegas. The Texans, having finished seventh among thirteen teams in the conference, had beaten UTRGV to notch a victory in the program’s first-ever Division I postseason game. (The Texans made the leap from Division II in the 2020–21 season but weren’t eligible to compete in the WAC postseason tourney until this year. Their transition to full-fledged DI status will be complete in 2024–25, when Tarleton State becomes eligible to play in the NCAA tournament.)
Gillispie praised junior guard Freddy Hicks, who overcame a broken foot during the preseason and a hand that was fractured weeks later to lead the team in scoring. “He was wearing some kind of crazy monstrosity on the back of his hand that most people wouldn’t even try to do,” Gillispie said of Hicks’s return to the court months earlier. “They would have redshirted. And he’s playing for his . . .”
Again, Gillispie abruptly fell silent. He looked down at his hands. The room followed his lead and went quiet for a few seconds. “In my career I’ve never seen anything like it,” the coach said.
Reminded recently of the similarity between the two interview episodes, two decades apart, Gillispie—are you ready?—choked up. “As far as the players go,” he began, voice trailing off. “I’m emotional now.
“Chris Craig ended up coming back the next year and being a real important two guard on that team because we recruited the number one junior-college player in the country, Filiberto Rivera. He was fantastic, and Chris moved to off guard. But . . .”
He stopped again, gathered himself.
“These players, man. We work ’em hard, love ’em harder. And . . .”
“That’s what it’s all about.”
Emotion and drama have seemingly never been in short supply throughout Gillispie’s mercurial coaching career, most of which has been spent in Texas, now in Stephenville, at Tarleton State’s campus about eighty miles southwest of Fort Worth. He engineered near-immediate turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M in the early and mid-aughts, paving the way for his rapid ascension to the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky in 2007.
But Gillispie’s tenure with the Wildcats’ storied college basketball program was terminated after his second season in Lexington, when the team missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in eighteen years. A few years later, he resurfaced for a single-season stint with Texas Tech (finishing last in the Big 12 in 2011–12), which ended when he resigned, citing health concerns, in September 2012.
Gillispie’s complicated curriculum vitae includes four trips to the NCAA tournament, thirteen conference Coach of the Year awards across various levels of high school and college hoops, an arraignment for drunken driving months after his dismissal from Kentucky, enrollment in the Houston treatment center operated by former NBA star John Lucas (Gillispie later said he didn’t enter the center to stop drinking, although he stated that “alcohol has caused problems for me”), a reprimand from Texas Tech for violating NCAA limits on practice hours, and allegations that he pressured injured players to practice during his time in Lubbock.
Gillispie returned to coaching in 2015 on a much smaller stage and in a much friendlier environment—at two-year Ranger College, where he played baseball and basketball as a student in the late seventies, not far from his hometown of Graford. Gillispie’s time at Ranger was interrupted by a medical emergency—a kidney transplant in March 2018, the donation made by the wife of a longtime coaching colleague. Gillispie returned to guide Ranger to the 2019 junior-college national championship game and then back to the national tournament in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic halted play.
That same year, Tarleton State began its transition to Division I. And in March of 2020, the Texans’ coaching job came open. “I would have been happy to stay at Ranger, but this opportunity came along,” Gillispie said.
Tarleton State athletic director Lonn Reisman said Gillispie was the right person to lead the Texans through the transition to Division I membership. Any concerns about Gillispie’s past are considered just that—past. “Everybody has had certain situations throughout their career where things didn’t exactly go the right way,” Reisman said. “But I felt like that was all behind him.”
Reisman said he is satisfied with the basketball program’s progress under Gillispie. “I think our team is playing hard,” he told me. “I like our players. I like the conduct of our players off and on the floor. I like their GPAs, and I like what they’re doing academically.”
“There are only two things that are important in coaching—who you’re working for and can you win,” Gillispie told me. “If you’re working for the right people, you can work almost anywhere nowadays, because the players will go anywhere.” The coach was referring to increased player mobility thanks to changes in recent years to NCAA transfer regulations, as well as to athletes’ ability to earn money from their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights. “That’s why you see Florida Atlantic and San Diego State in the same year in a Final Four,” he said. “You can do it anywhere.”
Even before Tarleton’s WAC tournament win, the Texans reached several Division I milestones this season. The program scored its first win over a Power Five conference team, beating Boston College 70–54 only weeks after nearly upsetting Arizona State.
In league play, Tarleton beat both the regular-season champion (Utah Valley) and the WAC tournament champion (Grand Canyon, which went on to represent the conference in March Madness). The Texans ended their season in a secondary postseason tournament called the College Basketball Invitational, losing an overtime heartbreaker to Radford in the first round to finish with an overall record of 17–17.
The upset of Boston College “did the most for our fans, and I think it did a lot for our players,” Gillispie said. “They were saying all the right things. ‘We can do this. We can beat these guys.’ But until you really do it, it’s still up in the air.”
Gillispie’s three seasons at Tarleton State match his longest stay at a four-year college. Will Gillispie stay put in Stephenville, so close to home? Or does his second run through the WAC become another stepping stone?
“I’m not looking for another spot when I have another job,” said Gillispie, who is entering the final season of a four-year contract with the school. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve had an opportunity to talk to some other [schools]. I’m at a point in my career where—of course, everybody would move for a particular situation. That situation has not arisen yet.
“In this town, you can be a human being and still be a coach,” he went on, reflecting on the pressure that undid him in previous high-profile gigs. “There are some places where, as a coach, you’re only a paid gladiator, to go in the ring and perform, and you’re not really a person.”
Tarleton plans to soon break ground on a new, $110 million arena, which will be able to hold more than twice as many fans as the Texans’ current home court, 53-year-old Wisdom Gym (capacity: three thousand). Tarleton also has plans to get in the NIL game with a donor collective called the Bleed Purple Athletic Alliance.
“I firmly believe this is a monster in basketball,” Gillispie said of Tarleton’s hoops future. “I don’t think there’s a team in the country we couldn’t play with.”