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January 25, 2008

Gillispie's way starting to work for Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. He paid nearly $1.5 million for a 12,000-square foot mansion that features eight bedrooms, a library, wine cellar and wet bar. Still, first-year Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie rarely spends time there.

Especially at night.

"I don't cook," said Gillispie, a bachelor at 48.

Instead, five or six times a week, Gillispie pops in for supper at one of his favorite Lexington eateries. A steak at Sal's Chop House one evening, a meal at Malone's or Merrick Inn the next.

While Kentucky coaches in the past have attempted to keep a low profile, Gillispie hardly allows his status as the city's most recognizable citizen to interfere with his social life. In fact, he scoffed when asked if the attention he receives the autograph requests, the handshakes, the pictures can become "a pain."

"Are you kidding me?" he said. "I'm embracing it. I'm going to live my life. I love life and, more importantly, I love people."

Here in Lexington, they're learning love him, too.


It took a few months, but fans are beginning to feel good about the direction of Kentucky's basketball program under Gillispie.

Granted, the Wildcats are still just 8-9, and those dreadful home losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego can never be erased from the record book. These days, though, they're hardly mentioned not after Tuesday's win over No. 3 Tennessee and last week's victory over previously unbeaten Vanderbilt.

Kentucky basketball may not be "back," but, under Gillispie, you certainly get the feeling that it will be soon.

"Anyone that's watched the last three or four games has to be excited," said Tom Arington, a longtime Kentucky booster. "Billy is implementing a plan and its working.

"The name of the game now is patience. If people can be patient, there are going to be a lot of fun times ahead in Lexington."

Slow start

The Wildcats' victory over Tennessee was nearly 30 minutes old, yet there was Gillispie, surrounded by five police officers as he stood on the baseline signing basketballs and mementos for a handful of children. Suddenly a loud voice boomed from behind.

"What's up, coach? It's your No. 1 fan! "

Gillispie turned and shook hands with Buster Patterson, the father of Kentucky freshman Patrick Patterson.

"Gettin' better, aren't we?" Gillispie said.

"A lot better," Patterson replied. "Keep it up. Rome wasn't built in a day."

Gillispie shakes his head.

"Yeah," he said, "but we've had plenty of days now."

Indeed, the first few months of the season certainly seemed to drag for Gillispie, who was hired last spring to replace Tubby Smith.

Unlike his previous head coaching stints at Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M which failed to win a conference game the year before his arrival Gillispie didn't inherit an atrocious situation at Kentucky.

Three of the top five scorers returned from an NCAA tournament team that finished 22-12 last season, and Gillispie brought in one of the country's top freshmen in Patterson. Mix in the fan support that gives Kentucky one of college basketball's top home-court advantages, and it's easy to see why people had high expectations from the get-go.

"Our fans here are passionate," athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. "They care a lot. That means they're going to tell you what they think."

Here's a look at how the new coaches in the "Big Six" leagues are faring this season. The record listed is through Thursday's games. In parentheses is the team's record through that many games last season:
School Old coach New coach Record (last year)
Arkansas Stan Heath John Pelphrey 13-5 (12-6)
Colorado Ricardo Patton Jeff Bzdelik 9-9 (5-13)
Iowa Steve Alford Todd Lickliter 9-11 (11-9)
Kansas State Bob Huggins Frank Martin 13-4 (11-6)
Kentucky Tubby Smith Billy Gillispie 8-9 (14-3)
Michigan Tommy Amaker John Beilein 5-14 (15-4)
Minnesota Dan Monson Tubby Smith 12-5 (7-10)
USF Robert McCullum Stan Heath 10-10 (10-10)
Texas A&M Billy Gillispie Mark Turgeon 15-4 (16-3)
Wake Forest Skip Prosser Dino Gaudio 12-6 (9-9)
West Virginia John Beilein Bob Huggins 15-4 (15-4)

Five new coaches are having great success outside the "Big Six" leagues. Each of these guys has his team in contention for at least an NCAA at-large bid:
School Old coach New coach Record (last year)
Butler Todd Lickliter Brad Stevens 18-2 (18-2)
Drake Tom Davis Keno Davis 17-1 (11-7)
Illinois State Porter Moser Tim Jankovich 14-5 (10-9)
New Mexico Ritchie McKay Steve Alford 16-4 (12-8)
South Alabama John Pelphrey Ronnie Arrow 16-3 (12-7)

Suffice to say, then, that folks in Lexington were none too pleased when the Wildcats suffered non-conference losses to schools such as Gardner Webb, Houston, Alabama-Birmingham and San Diego.

Injuries to Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper contributed greatly to Kentucky's early season struggles but, even today, Gillispie refuses to use that a crutch.

"Regardless of the injury situation, we should've played better," Gillispie said. "We should've played better no matter who we put on the court. It's my fault we didn't. We just didn't perform as well as we should."

Frustrated as Gillispie may have been, he hardly panicked or lost his poise. Gillispie and Kansas coach Bill Self are best friends and talk at least twice a week. Never, Self said, did he sense any alarm in Gillispie's voice.

"He never sounded dejected," Self said. "Not once was there a point where he lacked the confidence that he was going to get it done. He was just frustrated that he didn't have enough healthy players to do it.

"With Billy, the bottom line is that he isn't there just to win games this year. He's there to build a championship-caliber program. In order to do that, you have to get everyone to buy into your philosophy. From the very first day, you have to do it your way."

Even when they involve the country's best coaches, transition periods don't always run smoothly. Players who were used to certain systems and schedules often show resistance when a new coach changes the routine.

That could've easily been the case at Kentucky, where seniors such as Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley had spent three seasons under Smith.

"We had grown to love Coach Smith," Bradley said. "Now everything we had done on an every-day basis was getting completely turned around. We felt like freshmen again. It was tough."

Gillispie said it would be inaccurate to say there was an early season tug-of-war between him and his players.

"People in your business (the media) try to make something of that so you can have a good, fun story to write," Gillispie said. "But these kids have tried extremely hard from day one.

"You're not always going to be liked as a coach at every moment. And I don't think a coach is always going to like a player's behavior at every moment. What's most important is that, at the end of the day, because of basketball, you still love them and they still love you."

Figuring it out

On Tuesday, even though the game was already in hand, Kentucky's Jasper dove across the hardwood to corral a loose ball with 10 seconds remaining.

As he watched on television thousands of miles away in Mantua, Utah, Josh Johnston clapped his hands, turned to a friend and said: "They've got it. They've figured it out."

You won't meet many bigger Gillispie fans than Johnston, who played under Gillispie for a season at UTEP before transferring to Texas A&M after Gillispie was hired in College Station.

"I can't tell you how proud I was of him and his team on Tuesday night," said Johnston, now an assistant at the College of Eastern Utah. "It was like watching Texas A&M play last year, with the way they were diving and getting after it for the full 40 minutes.

"It's obvious his players have bought into what he's been trying to teach them, just like we did."

Indeed, Gillispie has been in this situation before.

He was an assistant under Self at Illinois when UTEP hired him as its head coach in November of 2002. Gillispie flew to his introductory press conference on Nov. 2 and never bothered returning to Champaign to collect his belongings. Instead he had a friend pack them up and mail them to El Paso.

"Too much work to do," Gillispie said.

UTEP went from 6-24 in Gillispie's first season to 24-8 in 2003-04. The turnaround got Gillispie hired at Texas A&M, where the Aggies had gone 0-16 in Big 12 play the previous season.

Much like he's doing now at Kentucky, Gillispie had to instill a new level of work ethic and pride in the Aggies, who had two future first-round NBA draft picks in Antoine Wright and Acie Law.

"There was definitely some resistance at first," said former Aggie Logan Lee. "Our whole life turned into basketball and Texas A&M and 'family.' It was 24-7. He was calling us up for meetings at 9 and 10 at night. There were times early on when people just didn't want to do it anymore.

"But once Antoine and Acie bought it, it became contagious and we all bought in. Once the season began we started seeing that it was all worth it. I hated how hard it was at times but, looking back, I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Texas A&M went 21-10 in Gillispie's first season, 22-9 in his second and reached the Sweet 16 in his third. Johnston said Gillispie's attitude toward his players made him easy to like and respect.

"He might be pretty critical on the court sometimes," Johnston said, "but it's to make you better not to break you down. Once you understand that you won't have a problem playing for him at all.

"He genuinely cares about his guys, all of them. I wasn't a starter but I got treated the same way our stars did. He'll stick up for you. I guarantee that if you called him right now and started saying bad things about me, he'd be ready to fight you."

Gillispie said his time under Self prepared him for the head coaching opportunities that came his way. After working as an assistant at Baylor for three seasons, Gillispie caught his big break when Self added him to his Tulsa staff in the fall of 1997.

Self, who took Gillispie with him when he was hired at Illinois, said Gillispie's biggest attribute is his work ethic. He said he remembers walking into Gillispie's office and seeing stacks of handwritten recruiting letters that weren't due to be mailed out for months.

"He puts so much effort into his job," Self said. "No one is going to outwork the guy. His hours would get screwed up because he would skip a night of sleep to do recruiting stuff or watch tape. To be honest, there were times when it probably wasn't healthy."

These days people seeing the same determined effort at Kentucky, where the Wildcats continue to improve.

Kentucky is 2-2 in SEC play. Even in the two losses a close setback against Florida and a five-point defeat against Mississippi State there have been encouraging signs.

"They didn't come into this game struggling," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said after losing to the Wildcats. "They came in here playing the best basketball they have all season. They've played four of the top six teams in the SEC, and they're holding serve."

All of it couldn't be more gratifying to Gillispie. Normally stoic and reserved on the sidelines, Gillispie flashed more than a few grins as the final seconds ticked away in Tuesday's win.

The following morning, his eyes still red from a late-night film session, Gillispie was asked to describe his emotions after the win.

"It's fun for me because I can see the joy that these guys are experiencing right now," said Gillispie, reclining in a conference room chair. "As a group, you define your legacy by the struggles you go through and how you handle them.

"Even though we've struggled and our record isn't what we want it to be, I think there's going to be times in these young people's lives when they look back and say, 'We didn't start great, but look how we finished up.'"

Embracing expectations

Pleased as they are with Kentucky's progress in recent weeks, an upset loss here or a sloppy game there could cause fans to turn on Gillispie.

That's how it is when you're the coach of the winningest program in college basketball history. Gillispie knows that, and it doesn't bother him. After all, he said, the fans are what make the Wildcats' program so great. It's the fans that fill Rupp Arena and help draw the country's top athletes to Lexington by treating them like celebrities.

If he invested his money, time and passion into supporting a program and then watched it struggle, Gillispie said he'd voice his opinion, too.

"Our players are more well-received and more loved here than they would be anywhere else," Gillispie said. "Our players were tired going into the (Tennessee) game but our fans gave them energy and helped them along. You couldn't ask for anything more."

Gillispie also realizes that, when he moved to Lexington, the scrutiny would be severe. As closely as fans are watching and critiquing his actions on the court, his every action off of it is also being analyzed. The situation is similar to the one Self stepped into five years ago at Kansas.

"Let's say you pull up to a stop sign and the person in front of you is just sitting there, not moving," Self said. "You honk, and then hours later someone is on the internet, saying you have problems with road rage.

"Other days your mind might be scattered and you don't want to be bothered, maybe because you're dealing with a family issue or something. You're not quite as nice to someone that comes up to you, and now you've got people calling you a jerk.

"In our position you can't have an off day, because an off day becomes news."

Gillispie didn't have to put himself in this situation. He could've stayed at Texas A&M and become a legend by challenging Kansas for the Big 12 title each season. Kentucky, though, is where he's always wanted to be.

As a high school coach in Texas, Gillispie used to order Rick Pitino's instructional tapes and use them to help prepare his team. And being a basketball history buff, he's awed by Kentucky's deep tradition.

In some ways Gillispie said basketball-crazy Lexington reminds him of Graford, Texas, the small town outside of Fort Worth where he grew up. With a population of about 600, Graford couldn't afford to have a high school football team.

"So everyone played basketball," Gillispie said. "Every person that you ran into on the street it was like, 'He played on the 1967 team that went to the state championship.' You were identified by how well you performed as a basketball player. The most important person in the town was always the coach.

"If it's that way here, that's fine. I'm not going to change. I'm going to live my life. I would think the people here would enjoy getting to know and to see the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. It's a very well-supported and very well-respected position. You have an opportunity to meet a lot of different people. That's something I look forward to."

Even so, Gillispie probably won't be out and about very much this winter and spring. Encouraged as he's been in recent weeks, he knows he still has months years, maybe of work to do before his stamp on the Wildcats' program has truly been established.

He won't win a national championship in his first season like Smith did in 1998, and it will take years of success before anyone even thinks about comparing him to Pitino. In the end, though - win or lose - you can count on Gillispie doing things one way at Kentucky: His.

Right now that seems good enough.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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