Aggies need new direction for post-Gillispie future
Arkansas wasn't appealing enough to lure Billy Gillispie from Texas A&M, but Kentucky had no trouble tearing the coach from the team he took from the Big 12 basement to national prominence.
Now that the turnaround king has moved to his next post, the Aggies are left to ponder what's next.
In three seasons, Gillispie took the Aggies from an 0-16 Big 12 record to their first trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 since 1980. Texas A&M finished with a school-record 27 wins and was ranked in the top 10 for most of the season.
In their second straight appearance in the tournament, they were eliminated by one point in the regional semifinals by Memphis. The run capped a school-record third straight 20-win season and marked the first time Texas A&M had made back-to-back tournament appearances.
Last week, in the midst of being courted by the Razorbacks, Gillispie agreed to a new contract with the Aggies that increased his salary $500,000 to $1.75 million. School officials said he would sign the contract, which made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the Big 12, when he returned from the Final Four.
Speculation he was in the running for the Kentucky job was fueled when the school never announced that he'd signed the contract.
Apparently taking over the storied Wildcat program wasn't as tough of a decision as passing up the Arkansas job was. After Florida's Billy Donovan turned down Kentucky, Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne gave them permission to speak with Gillispie on Thursday night. By morning he had taken the job left vacant when Tubby Smith took over at Minnesota.
Gillispie agreed to a seven-year contract to take over a Kentucky program that lost in the second round of the tournament this season. He was introduced at a pep-rally style news conference Friday.
The Aggies were the second straight team Gillispie transformed in record time. Before arriving at A&M and improving the Aggies' record from 7-21 to 21-10 in his first season, Gillispie engineered an 18-win improvement at UTEP.
Those performances made him the only coach in NCAA history to lead the nation in turnarounds two years in a row, and his continued strides at football-crazy A&M made him a hot coaching commodity.
His work at A&M also brought excitement to a team that had always played second fiddle to the football program. Reed Arena was consistently sold out, and to get a seat for big games students slept outside the ticket windows -- something that was unheard of just three short years ago.
The Aggies are investing in their program, too, building a new basketball facility to show a commitment to the sport.
Gillispie, who has only been a head coach for five seasons, went 70-26 at a school that had just one winning record in league play in the 18 seasons before his arrival.
Byrne wasn't available for comment Friday, but an A&M spokesman said he had a short list of candidates for the job and hoped to move quickly on hiring a replacement.
The Aggies knew they'd have to move on without dynamic senior point guard Acie Law and big man Antanas Kavaliauskas. Now the departure of Gillispie, an excellent recruiter, leaves even more questions, not only about who will next lead the team, but concerning his highly regarded recruiting class.
Gillispie snagged the top recruit in Texas in DeAndre Jordan, a 7-footer from Houston. Jordan, who the recruiting Web site Rivals.com calls the eighth best recruit in the country, was also pursued by Florida, Indiana, LSU and Texas. The coach also signed Derrek Lewis of Tulsa, who is rated as one of the top five players in Oklahoma.
There hasn't been any indication that either will jump ship, but players who sign with a coach will often rescind their commitments if the coach leaves the school before they enroll.
Even if some of the recruits change their minds about A&M, the Aggies return a solid nucleus of players including 6-foot-9 Joseph Jones and top defender Dominique Kirk. Three-point shooting ace Josh Carter and promising freshman Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis will also be back.
No names have immediately surfaced to take over for Gillispie.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press