If you’ve read my posts, first, I apologize for rarely making a salient point. Second, you know that I am a dyed-in-Blue University of Kentucky sports fan. I have been since I was 8 years old. That’s 42 years for those scoring at home.
In my time as a resident of Big Blue Nation, as we somewhat arrogantly refer to ourselves, I’ve seen some odd things. We once lost a football game on consecutive pass interference penalties with time running out. The Cats also once gave up a 75 yard Hail Mary pass with no time left to lose a football game. These stories, as they relate to football, are many and varied. Basketball, on the other hand, has brought mostly joy. Oh, we remember the 1984 National Semi-Final game when the Cats shot 3 for 33 in the second half. Then, there was Christian Laettner’s dagger to the heart in 1992. Those, however, are mostly blips on the Big Blue radar.
Probably, our biggest disappointments have come off the court with our occasional run-ins with the NCAA’s Draconian rule book. Questionable ACT scores, money in envelopes, etc., have blighted our landscape. Of course, like any True Blue fan, I can offer you vigorous and persuasive defenses for all our transgressions. Perhaps I will do so in a future post. Now, though, I turn to the strangest period in UK sports–the Billy Gillispie Era.
I suppose it’s hyperbole to refer to a two-year span as an “era,” but that’s what we call it. Billy G as we lovingly called him, succeeded Orlando “Tubby” Smith as Kentucky’s basketball coach in the Spring of 2007. Smith had finished an 10 year run as coach which included a national championship. He won that title in his first year as coach and was never able to repeat. In fact, despite some near misses, Tubby never got the Cats back to the Final Four, an unforgivable sin. Some called him “Ten Loss Tubby” in reference to his losing at least ten games in a season several times, despite averaging 26 wins a season in Lexington. By the 2006-2007 season, many fans felt like Tubby’s time was up.
Smith did the smart thing and jumped at the chance to leave UK and coach the University of Minnesota where he still coaches. UK fans rejoiced! Message boards lit up! Now, we would get us a coach to push us back over the top!
Who would it be? Now, we UK fans believe everyone wants the Kentucky job, except maybe Mike Krzyzewski. Maybe. Would it be former UK All-American and NBA coaching royalty Pat Riley? What about former coach and current villain Rick Pitino? John Wooden was 96 years old at the time, but maybe he would come back. While the fan base was engaged in its own demented fantasy world, the university was pursuing candidates who might actually want the job.
At first, it sounded like it might be Rick Barnes, the surly and moderately successful coach at the University of Texas. That didn’t pan out. What about John Calipari at Memphis? Nah, we don’t want that guy. We settled on Billy Donovan, hot-shot coach at the University of Florida.
I rarely spend time on message boards but couldn’t resist during those days. People were using software programs to track flights between Lexington and Gainesville, Florida. Donovan was spotted at various locations in and around Lexington. I even heard that a clandestine meeting had been held on the tarmac of undisclosed airport to hammer out the final details.
Bottom line: No deal with Donovan. He wanted the Orlando Magic job, which he took and then quit 5 days later. Oh, well. Then, the name Billy Clyde Gillispie rose to the top. We in BBN knew Billy Clyde. Why? Because his Texas A&M team had just upset the accursed Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville in the NCAA Tournament–at Rupp Arena. Thus, this otherwise obscure coach was already something of a hero in BBN. What did it matter that none of us knew anything about him? A lot, as it turns out.
Gillispie was announced as the new head basketball coach at UK on April 6, 2007. As is our practice, a large and unnecessary pep rally was held. Billy G was introduced to the fans. They cheered wildly. He said all the right things. Let the good times roll!
Gillispie seemed uncomfortable in front of those fans. He said the right things but looked like a guy who wanted to catch the next bus out of town. I chalked it up to being in the spotlight for the first time. Wouldn’t any of us be nervous?
Then, there were rumors that Gillispie told his A&M players he was leaving via text message. If true, that was odd. Hmmm.
It took no time for people to start beating the drum for Billy G–or Billy Clyde as many called him. He was a relentless recruiter. He was tough, not soft like Tubby. He pushed his team. People called him The Warrior. He was a great X’s and O’s coach. We were confident that we’d hit a home run when we were still in the on-deck circle. No honeymoon ever ended as abruptly as this one.
My first problem was with Billy G was his disturbing resemblance to Squiggy of Laverne & Shirley fame. I couldn’t get past it.
Of course, I’m joking–sort of. He does look like Squiggy.
The first problem most other folks had with him was called Gardner-Webb. That’s a college. I knew that because that’s where Artis Gilmore had gone to school before he attended Jacksonville State. UK fans now know G-W because they laid an 84-68 ass-whipping on UK in Gillispie’s second game. There were other ignominious losses, but the Cats wound up going 12-4 in the SEC, and Billy Clyde was even named SEC Coach of the Year.
Despite our ending the season on a bit of an uptick, there were signs that things weren’t right:
- Our recruiting was going nowhere fast. He was getting commitments from players no one knew, even an 8th grader in one instance.
- His media performances were tepid, to say the least. Even his Coachspeak was limited to repeatedly saying that the Cats must “compete.”
- Rumors abounded about his off-the-court lifestyle. It sounded as if Austin Powers had taken the reins of our beloved program.
- We heard stories of grueling game day practices with feet bleeding from non-stop running.
- Worst of all, Cats finished 18-13 and lost to Marquette in the 1st Round of the NCAA Tournament.
Billy G’s second season was not an improvement. VMI was our Gardner-Webb beating the Cats 111-103. Billy G famously insulted an ESPN reporter during a game. The Cats sputtered to a 22-14 record losing in the freakin’ NIT! Billy G sealed his fate by stating that being the face of the basketball program wasn’t part of his job. If he had any supporters, they didn’t make much noise. Three stories, in particular, rankled Kentucky fans:
- Perry Stephenson, a forward from Louisiana, was the epitome of the player who needed fill out his frame. He never did. The story was that Billy G, incensed over Stephenson’s lanky frame, forced him to eat a box of Pop Tarts.
- Billy G became so irate with Josh Harrellson that he forced him to stand in a bathroom stall during halftime of a game. Later, he forced Harrellson to ride back to Lexington in the equipment van.
- He even kicked one of the walk-ons off the team for laughing on the bench during a loss.
Right or wrong, UK basketball players are beloved. Beloved. Abusing them–either through grueling practices or outright embarrassment– was unacceptable, especially when the NIT was the result.
By the end of that second season, Billy G had dribbled out the clock. Game over. UK fired him on March 27, 2009. The next day, the ex-coach held a bizarre farewell press conference. He said he was happy and that everything was great. With that, he was gone. Sort of.
First, he decided to sue over his well-deserved firing. Second, he re-appeared on our local news six months later after being arrested a mere 20 miles from Lexington after a late night of golf and drinking. Like a bad penny, he kept turning up.
He then did an obligatory stay at John Lucas’s rehab facility. He emerged a new man, contrite over his old ways. Declaring himself a non-alcoholic, he was ready for a second chance.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that “there are no second acts in American life.” Of course, this was before Big Time Sports. Billy G would get another chance. Texas Tech was that chance.
Texas Tech was the ideal job. Lubbock is in his home state, far removed from the national spotlight. He had great success turning around moribund programs at Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M. Texas Tech is, at its heart, a football school. Basketball success is a bonus. He would have time to build what he wanted.
It took Billy Clyde two years to squander one of the top jobs in college basketball. Somehow, in a year at Tech, he has himself back on the ledge. By the time you read this, he may already be fired. In the past couple of weeks, the following events have transpired:
- Players have met with the Tech Athletic Director to complain about Billy G’s practices, accusing him of exceeding the NCAA’s twenty hour a week limit and forcing injured players to practice.
- The Tech administration has announced that it takes these allegations “extremely seriously.”
- Billy G has been hospitalized for what he thought was a stroke or heart attack.
- He has now been placed on indefinite medical leave.
We know the end of this story. He is on his way out. Remember this, too: His immediate predecessors were Bob Knight and his Hellish offspring, Pat–two coaches never to be confused with Dale Carnegie. There may not another chance after this.
I’ve never met Billy Clyde. Those I know who did during his time in Lexington were not impressed. I don’t know what his problems are or why he’s blown two chances that others would fight for. But, I know his type–Me. In my own way, I used to act like him: Drink too much and dismiss it as no problem. Force my way upon others, even when my way was not effective and sure to alienate those around me. Fight with authority when that authority held all the cards. Then, when things turned out poorly, we wonder why things went so wrong. I was younger than Billy G when I started to grow up, to take responsibility for my actions and find a better way to live. Growing up before one grows old is always preferable. Any time otherwise successful people pull their world down around them bad things are under the surface.
I don’t what his medical leave is about, but I hope he is addressing whatever demons have created his problems with living. A cynic (realist?) would suggest that this is a ploy to force a buy-out of his contract. Maybe it is. I make no judgment about his drinking or his emotional state. I don’t engage in pop psychology. What I do know is that people who consistently sabotage themselves have problems with living that a new job won’t cure.
I’m not so naive that I believe Billy G would have the same conflicts if he were consistently winning games. Look no further than Bob Knight for an example of contemptible behavior being deemed acceptable if balanced with enough winning. Billy G, it seems, has too few wins to be Bob Knight.
Will he get another chance? Probably. Sports fans are forgiving, especially if contrition is shown. A record of success doesn’t hurt either. Billy is still a young man, 52 years old. He’ll likely emerge as an assistant somewhere. Sadly, he may repeat this tired act again. Even though he wasn’t success at UK, I wish him well. For as many negatives as we’ve heard, many other people saygood things about him. Like of all us, he’s probably a mixture of good and bad. No one, it has been said, should be judged by his worst. Whatever gnaws at him compromises that good. Let’s all hope he gets a third act and is ready for his role.