Gillispie: From UTEP to UK in five short years

Billy Gillispie's made a remarkable rise from UTEP to Kentucky in five years. Now he'll be expected to win big in Lexington, writes Pat Forde.

Originally Published: April 6, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Billy Clyde Gillispie gladly will give you the impression that he accidentally blew into the big time like a Texas tumbleweed. That he's just a small-town bumpkin who lucked into the college basketball lottery.

"Was I the second choice?" Gillispie asked during his introductory news conference as the new coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. "If I was anywhere before seven or eight, I'd be happy."

He's playing possum -- appropriate for a guy who grew up 12 miles from Possum Kingdom Lake in Graford, Texas (pop. 578).

"He's a bright guy," Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. "He gives you that aw-shucks deal, but he's a bright guy."

He's a bright guy suddenly thrust into the bright lights of Kentucky basketball. Don't expect him to blink much.

As Barnhart indicated, it would be a grave mistake to assume that HillBilly Gillispie isn't sophisticated enough to handle his five-year quantum leap up in class: from UTEP to Texas A&M to one of the top three jobs in the sport. Embracing the immensity of Kentucky basketball is the first step to success here -- a step Tubby Smith took awkwardly at best.

Gillispie didn't seem awkward on the big stage Friday.

Billy Gillispie
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonBilly Gillispie took UTEP to the NCAA Tournament a year after going 6-24 in his first season there.
He walked into a pep rally on campus and immediately began slapping hands with students and fans, showing more emotion and common-man appeal than any Kentucky coach in memory.

Gillispie can do folksy without it being forced. He's a naturally comfortable small-talker with a quick sense of humor. One night at the Final Four, a group of us from ESPN.com spent 20 minutes talking basketball with Gillispie and his best friend, Kansas coach Bill Self, and Gillispie was perfectly comfortable leaning against the wall with a drink straw in the corner of his mouth, chatting off the record.

At least until we asked whether he was a candidate for the Kentucky job. Hoopsworld knew that if the UK search went past Billy Donovan, Gillispie would be in play. He smiled and said nothing.

When it played out that way -- Donovan saying no, Rick Barnes dropping out -- suddenly Gillispie became the guy Thursday night. Kentucky did well the last time it hired its third choice for a job (Rick Pitino in 1989). This was not a hard sell.

"He wanted it," Barnhart said, not just of the job but of the king-sized expectations that go with the job. "Wanted it. He was ready to take it on.

"The first thing out of Billy's mouth was, 'This is the best job in America.' I thought that was spectacular."

That self-assuredness doesn't mean Gillispie will succeed the way Kentucky expects him to succeed. The jury hasn't even been selected, much less rendered a verdict, on that count.

Armchair athletic directors can point out that the Wildcats passed on at least one gettable candidate who has done more on the college level: Marquette's Tom Crean. They can wonder whether a serious run at Michigan State's Tom Izzo might have landed a man with a national championship ring, instead of a guy who has one career Sweet 16 appearance. They can debate whether a guy who has done good work with other people's players has stayed put long enough to prove he can build for the long haul.

They also can discuss the administrative inconsistency in hiring a man with two alcohol-related traffic stops at a school that once had a very strict alcohol policy for its athletes -- suspending former players Jules Camara and Desmond Allison for an entire season for DUI offenses.

And they can speculate on whether a freshman meltdown in the final seconds of Texas A&M's NCAA Tournament second-round game against Louisville might be the only thing separating Gillispie from being unhirable. If Edgar Sosa doesn't blow up and the Cardinals beat the Aggies, can you hire a guy whose veteran team just was upset by Rick Pitino in Rupp Arena?

Fair questions, all of them. But here's what you can't question: Few coaches have rocketed up the coaching ranks faster than Billy Clyde.

A combination of confidence, brute work ethic and country charm have carried Gillispie a long way in a short time. Five years ago, he was milk carton-anonymous as an assistant to Bill Self at Illinois. Four years ago, his first UTEP team went 6-24. Since then, Gillispie's career has ignited.

His last four teams -- one at UTEP, three at A&M -- have gone 94-34. That's how you suddenly vault from the school formerly known as Texas Western through the Big 12 to a school that famously lost to Texas Western some 41 years ago.

Even in America's single hottest bed of college basketball -- and you can check the Final Four Nielsen ratings for proof -- Gillispie hardly was a household name prior to last year. His Aggies won a single NCAA Tournament game in 2006, upsetting Syracuse, then lost to eventual Final Four team LSU at the buzzer. This season A&M was a season-long fixture in the poll and came close to knocking off Memphis in the Sweet 16.

"Those two situations [UTEP and A&M] both needed a little fixing," Gillispie said. "This situation has been fixed for a long time."

Yes, it has. But a quick scan of the roster tells you that recruiting has been far below Kentucky's usual caliber in recent years. The program is fixed, but it could use a tune-up.

There have been only five basketball coaches in the previous 77 years at Kentucky. Four of them -- Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith -- have won national championships.

Billy Clyde Gillispie will be expected to join that group. The two biggest names in the history of the program are a guy from Kansas (Rupp) and a New York native (Pitino). We'll see whether a small-town Texan adds or detracts from Kentucky's storied legacy.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.