Gillispie Ready To Restore Kentucky's Luster

Saturday, April 7th 2007, 2:26 pm
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) _ Billy Gillispie doesn't mind being second-guessed.

Yet it's hard to nitpick the way he resurrected the programs at UTEP and Texas A&M.

Leading the Miners and the Aggies to the NCAA tournament is one thing. At Kentucky, he knows that won't be enough. His goal is to lead the Wildcats back to the Final Four for the first time in a decade.

``This is why you want to come to the best place in college basketball,'' he said. ``The tougher it is, the better I like it.''

It's a toughness he developed as a self-described ``bad'' basketball player growing up in tiny Graford, Texas, a town too small to field a football team.

It didn't take Gillispie long to realize his success would come from working the sidelines. He was a graduate assistant at Texas State in 1982, then spent the next 20 years working his way from successful high school coach to an assistant under Bill Self at Tulsa and Illinois.

Gillispie's work ethic endeared him to Self, one of Gillispie's closest friends. The two talked around 4 a.m. Friday morning just minutes after Gillispie agreed to fill the seat formerly held by Adolph Rupp and Rick Pitino.

``I think the people in Kentucky are getting a great coach, a great person, a tireless worker and they will enjoy watching his style of play,'' Self said.

It's a style that translated to quick success at UTEP and Texas A&M. He joined the Miners in 2002 just weeks before the season started. After enduring a 6-24 year in 2002-03, he led UTEP to a 24-8 season the next year and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Texas A&M came calling next, and success soon followed. The Aggies were picked to finish last in the Big 12 in 2004-05 after going winless in conference play the season before Gillispie's arrival. Instead, they managed a 21-10 mark and a spot in the National Invitational Tournament. The next season the Aggies made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years.

It was enough for Texas A&M to commit millions of dollars to revamping Reed Arena _ a rare expense at a school where football has long been king. Gillispie followed by leading the Aggies to a 27-7 record this season and a spot in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the first time since 1980.

Though he agreed in principle to a new contract that would have made him one of the Big 12's highest-paid coaches following the season, he never signed the deal, opening the door for Kentucky.

``The work ethic, the recruiting. He's got the makeup you need to be successful here,'' said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart.

The 47-year-old Gillispie admits his obsession with basketball isn't exactly healthy. Barnhart estimated Gillispie sends up to 10,000 text messages a month to players, coaches and recruits. He doesn't sleep much, instead poring over hours of game tape or driving to some remote locale looking for a player who can fit his demanding style.

``I know it's not right to say you're into something like this, but I am,'' he said. ``Being a basketball coach is all I've ever wanted to do.''

The sailing hasn't always been smooth, however. Gillispie was arrested twice on drunk driving charges in the last eight years. He pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless driving while working as an assistant at Tulsa in 1999 and was arrested again while coaching at UTEP in 2003. Those charges were eventually dropped.

``I am not proud of some of the things I have done,'' he said. ``I think something all of us need to do in life is not judge too harshly because we all make mistakes.''

Mistakes have been rare over the last four seasons, making him one of the hottest coaches in the nation. Not bad for a kid from Texas who found his calling at a young age and hasn't thought of much else since.

``I never wanted to be anything else but a basketball coach since I was about seven years old,'' he said. ``Through hard word, dedication and luck, I am sitting here in the best position you can ever have as a basketball coach.''