Billy Gillispie must feel like he’s dreaming.
Just five years ago, he was stumbling through his first season as head coach at UTEP, on his way to a 6-24 record. Now, he’s preparing to sit in the same seat once occupied by Adolph Rupp, and lead a program that has “suffered” through back-to-back 22-win seasons. And he couldn’t be more excited.
“Was I the second choice?” Gillispie asked at his introductory news conference on April 6, in reference to UK’s public courtship of Billy Donovan. “If I was anywhere before seven and eight, I’d be happy.”
And there’s no reason he shouldn’t be. Unlike his previous stops at UTEP and Texas A&M, Gillispie enters a program with plenty of resources and ability- one that just needs some direction. The master of the quick turn-around will now be working under a much brighter spotlight, but he also has more tools and less to repair than ever before.
“Those two situations [UTEP and A&M] needed a little fixing,” acknowledged Gillispie. “This situation has been fixed for a long time.”
Gillispie also seems to have the public persona needed for such a prominent position. He understands that being a coach at UK is about more than the Xs and Os he draws up before games. From the enthusiastic fan base to the university administration to the potential recruits who don’t necessarily know the history of the program; it’s about being a salesman for the university, and presenting an image that will satisfy everyone.
It’s a role that Tubby Smith never fully seemed comfortable in, and likely one reason he’s trading in his blue for maroon and gold. Perhaps Tubby was done in because he followed Rick Pitino, whose style, attitude and image not only brought UK back to prominence following the probation years, but also electrified the fan base. Or maybe it just was just Tubby’s personality that always made him seem guarded and on the defensive. Whatever the reason, he never embraced the public image aspect of being the front man at UK, where style counts almost as much as substance.
However, all that may be a moot point for Gillispie, who is known for his gregarious personality. His genuine excitement during his press conference already seemed to be breathing some fresh air back into a program that, in recent years, seemed stale.
Gillispie’s energy should also pay dividends on the recruiting trail, an area where UK has struggled recently. While it is unsure whether any of his recruits will follow him to Lexington ( Hello? DeAndre Jordan? There’s a starting spot waiting for you, and you’d look great in blue…), there’s no doubt that his Texas ties will prove fruitful for many years to come. With a brand-new practice facility to sell, Gillispie should soon have Kentucky again battling for the elite recruits.
As with any coaching hire, it will take a season or two before we can judge whether Gillispie is the right choice. But with his basketball knowledge, enthusiasm and outgoing personality, he appears to have all the tools needed to make his stay in Lexington a long one.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart echoed that sentiment at the press conference.
“He is a tireless worker, a great recruiter, and is passionate about winning and winning the right way, “ said Barnhart in a released statement. “He will make the Commonwealth proud both as a coach and as a person.”
So welcome Billy. Let’s hope the dream lives on.