The fundamental problem is this: The one man Billy Clyde Gillispie needs the most to escape from, he can’t. Wherever Gillispie coaches, Billy Clyde inevitably follows.
Billy Clyde, who works 22 hours a day and wonders why others won’t do the same. Billy Clyde, who’s such a perfectionist that he’ll make his players run the same drill, over and over, until their fingers blister.
Billy Clyde, who looks like he spent the night sleeping in his office, and not particularly well. Billy Clyde, who doesn’t care about placating boosters or reporters, who doesn’t want to talk about himself. Billy Clyde, who doesn’t have time to glad-hand. Billy Clyde, who just wants to be left alone.
“I can tell you that he’s done what he’s done for a very long time,” said Chris Walker, who played under Gillispie at Texas A&M and coached with him at Kentucky. “And I see it being very difficult for him to change his philosophy and how he coaches those players … that’s all he really knows. It’s not like it worked 40 years ago. It worked five years ago.'”
It didn’t work here. Gillispie resigned Thursday as the men’s basketball coach at Texas Tech after just one forgettable season in Lubbock, Texas. The school announced the move was made because of health reasons.
Less than month earlier, Tech said it was investigating allegations of player mistreatment by the 52-year-old coach and that it had reported practice-time violations to the NCAA. Twice in a 10-day span this past month, 911 calls were made from Gillispie’s home. The first, on Aug. 31, came hours before he was to meet with Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt and led to a six-day stay in a Lubbock hospital. The two men never met to discuss the allegations.
Gillispie wasn’t taken to the hospital after the second call on Sept. 10. But the following day, he left for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he said he received treatment for kidney problems and abnormal headaches. Doctors there told him to avoid stress for 30 days.
Stress? Billy Clyde? Good luck with that.
Gillispie was the same coach in Lubbock that he was in Lexington, Ky., the same coach he was in College Station, Texas, and in El Paso, Texas. Billy Clyde is Billy Clyde is Billy Clyde, same as he ever was. When Gillispie takes the podium, there’s a demon on each shoulder, just waiting to strike.
“He’s got family, and you know, he blocks them out sometimes,” Walker said. “He’s just a real independent kind of guy. Too stubborn for his own good, to be honest.”
Too stubborn for his own good. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
Of all the creatures in the notoriously inflexible coaching kingdom, college basketball’s CEOs seem to be the most resistant toward the notion of changing their stripes. Years of autonomy — the more gilded the tenure, the deeper the resolve — can, with a few exceptions, make them a dangerously myopic, a self-aggrandizing lot, a pack of Mussolinis in wingtips. Get on board or get out of the way.
At the BCS level, titles are won on talent, and talent isn’t patient. Talent doesn’t wait. Talent isn’t interested in a system, or rebuilding or some three-year plan. Talent wants what it wants. Talent wants it now.
Billy Clyde doesn’t adapt to talent. Billy Clyde tries to get talent to adapt to him.
But talent often doesn’t adapt. Talent leaves.
It’s easy now, given the benefit of hindsight, to see why Gillispie crashed and burned at Texas Tech, the way he crashed and burned in the Commonwealth before that.
“You have to be prepared to go in there knowing you have to do everything right,” said Logan Lee, another one of Billy Clyde’s former players at A&M. “You’re going to do it until you get it right, and that’s what pushes you past your limits sometimes.”
Talent will only put up with so much pushing. Talent doesn’t suffer to the whims of dictators gladly. Talent is happier to walk away.
“I’d wake up every day and be afraid,” Walker says. “Because I knew he was going to push my limits … he ain’t going to push me to a level where I was going to injure myself, but coach expects you to push yourself. You’re going to be breathing hard, you’re going to be fatigued, your mind is going to play tricks on you; I’m going to tell you, you’re more tired than you already are.
“I wish I could tell (the Tech kids), ‘If they keep fighting, it’s going to be better for you in the long run.’ But that’s not just what happened.”
Talent isn’t interested in the long run. Talent is interested in right here, right now, and the lunatic who has them running the stadium steps, barking like a mad dog at the moonlight.
“I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what transpired down there, but I do know from experience when it’s your first year in a downtrodden program, it ain’t easy,” said Steve Forbes, a former Gillispie assistant who’s now the head coach at Northwest Florida State. “Especially when you know how to win and you know the formula, and you’ve got to change a mindset and a culture of losing, it’s hard. It’s hard to do, and it’s not pleasant, sometimes.”
Billy Clyde can be unpleasant. He can be surly. He’s not interested in politics, nor in playing the good cop. If Texas Tech wasn’t already sensitive about the accusations of player abuse after the charges leveled against former football coach Mike Leach, Gillispie might’ve been given more time, a longer rope. Plus, let’s face it: a 1-17 record in the Big 12 won’t win you many friends, even in a football town.
“I asked him if I could take a vacation once,” Walker said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘I haven’t taken a vacation in 12 years.’ So I didn’t push the vacation thing any much more.”
“The job,” Lee added, “is really his family.”
That family turned on him, another dagger in the downward spiral. Six months after being fired at Kentucky, he received his third DUI in a 10-year span. Gillispie reportedly lost $2.3 million in former confidant David Salinas’ alleged Ponzi scheme. Over the past 20 months, Gillispie has lost his mother and a nephew. Those who used to be in his inner circle are scared witless about the man’s well-being, mentally and physically.
“He lives, eats, drinks and sleeps basketball and his team,” Lee said. “I can guarantee you a 1-17 team at Tech this past year, he was probably up night and day thinking about what he can do to further his program, further his guys to have a better year than going 1-17.”
“Everybody wants to talk about how hard he makes players work, but he works his ass off just as much,” Walker says. “He’s always watching film, he’s always dissecting things from an X’s and O’s (standpoint). You don’t mind working as a player if the coach is working as hard or harder.”
But there’s a breaking point. A limit. Gillispie has to get his own house in order, one brick at a time, before he should be trusted to renovate someone else’s.
“If he wants to (coach again), he will — I think that’s up to Billy,” Forbes said. “I think if he wants to, he should, because he’s got a lot to give kids as far as his passion to be a coach and make better people.
“Listen, he ain’t for everybody. He’s hard. But when you come out on the other side, you’re a lot better for it.
“I believe he really cares about kids. I know this: I have two boys, and if they were ever good enough to play for him, I would love to have them play for him because they would be better players and better people because of it.”
Texas Tech gave Gillispie a second chance. If he doesn’t let Billy Clyde go, there won’t be a third.