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Billy Gillispie: The Freeway to Perdition and the Mountain Trail to Redemption

Perfect 20/20 hindsight is a thing that we all possesses, and it is at the same time constructive and destructive.  We use it all to often to condemn, to rebuke, and to excoriate.  But the best use for hindsight is to learn the lessons of the past failures or successes, which can lead to better living and happier times.

When Tubby Smith unexpectedly left Kentucky for the University of Minnesota in late March of 2007, it was a shock to the system -- not just of Kentucky fans, but of all of college basketball.  Coaches like Smith simply didn't leave schools like Kentucky for downtrodden programs -- it was an extraordinary event.  But extraordinary or not, that was the event that transformed the side road Billy Gillispie was on into an on-ramp for the highway to hell.

Before he arrived at Kentucky, Gillispie was a coach on the rise.  Gillispie burst on the college basketball scene at a most unlikely place, the University of Texas-El Paso, his first Division I head coaching position.  After taking the Miners to a 6-24 record in his first season, Gillispie recruited a top 25 class and went 24-8 to capture the WAC title, and in the process, actually defeated the famous Harlem Globetrotters 89-88, only the 3rd time in 289 games that the Globetrotters had lost a game.

From UTEP, Gillispie moved on to formerly moribund Texas A&M, where he led the Aggies to the NIT quarter finals in his first season, and to the NCAA tournament in 2005-06 and 2006-07, the last of which led him to a second-round tilt with Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals in Rupp Arena, a game which Gillispie won.  It was a harbinger of his future home, but not of future success.

With Tubby Smith's departure in the spring of 2007, UK tried to lure Billy Donovan, a former UK assistant under Rick Pitino and now coach of the Florida Gators, away from Gainesville to Lexington.  When that failed, Billy Gillispie eventually became the primary target of Kentucky Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart's coaching search.  By this time, Gillispie had become perhaps the hottest coach in college basketball without a national championship ring not named John Calipari.  For whatever reason, Calipari did not get the call from UK, and Billy Gillispie did.


The Highway to Perdition

When Gillispie came, most UK fans cheered.  Here was the kind of coach we needed -- a man obsessed with basketball to the extent his life had no balance.  Basketball coaching had cost Gillispie his marriage, and he himself admitted that his life was pretty much dedicated to one thing -- basketball coaching and recruiting.  UK fans thought that was great, and Gillispie was their hero, their genius -- a man who truly understood the passion of the Kentucky fan.  Gillispie's lack of balance in the cause of college basketball was a good thing, according to many of us.

But alas, lack of life balance can never be good, even when it comes to basketball.  Ultimately, it was Gillispie's lack of balance and his obsessive personality that cost him his job, ultimately, his reputation and prospects for future employment.

20/20 hindsight is a beautiful, horrible thing.  Billy Gillispie recently drove his life and career off the road by getting arrested for the third time in ten years for driving under the influence in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.  Now, looking back down the timeline of Gillispie's tenure as the head coach of the Wildcats, it all begins to make sense -- the whispers of erratic behavior, the inexplicable media faux pas, the tension with the basketball team and the failure to connect with the Lexington community and boosters.  All these things speak of a person who was living a troubled life, and having trouble coping with the demons that assail us all, but found fertile ground in Gillispie's obsessive persona.

When Gillispie was interviewed for the Kentucky job, the subject of the two alcohol-related arrests of course came up for discussion, and here is where the 20/20 hindsight comes in.  There was little known about the Tulsa arrest, but the arrest in El Paso had many items in common with Gillispie's most recent arrest in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky -- both occurred in the wee hours of the morning around 2:30-3:00, both times Gillispe seemed confused about where his credentials were, and both times Gillispie refused a breathalyzer test on the scene.

Of course, most UK fans remember Gillispies time at UK pretty clearly: his remarkable sales pitch that landed Patrick Patterson, one of the biggest recruiting gets in recent Kentucky history, the rude dismissal of walk-on Dusty Mills, the dust-ups with the NABC over early recruiting and moving Big Blue Madness to further recruiting, the refusal of DeAndre Liggins to enter the game vs. Kansas State in the Las Vegas Invitational.  But mostly, Big Blue fans remember barely making the NCAA tournament in 2007-08 (forgivable with the loss of Patrick Patterson) and the train-wreck of an NIT season in 2008-09 that ultimately resulted in Gillispie's dismissal.

Billy Gillispie's life and career now lies in ruins, and sadly, the University of Kentucky has had a part to play in his destruction.  Not, of course, that anyone but Gillispie is at fault for his behavior, but in a way, many of us (including yours truly) acted as enablers, excusing his earlier reckless acts when we should have objected to them, explaining his erratic behavior when we should have questioned it, forgiving his public embarrassments when we should have rebuked him for it.  But UK fans did not hand Gillspie the most recent cup of hemlock that killed his coaching career, at least for the nonce.  That blame lies squarely on the man from Graford, Texas, and is a consequence of an unbalanced, obsessive life.


The Mountain Trail to Redemption

While there are some fans at UK who bear Billy Gillispie ill will, most would probably tell you they wish nothing but the best for him and his future.  John Calipar's most recent book, Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and Life, ironically and serendipitously released very recently, would seem to be an excellent resource Gillspie to purchase and read.  Calipari's book is about how he overcame his setbacks, the most severe of which was his firing from the New Jersey Nets, and the lessons he learned when it comes to recovery.  Compared to Calipari, Gillispie's setbacks are much worse and threaten to be much more detrimental to his future.  But setbacks are setbacks, and bouncing back from them, however severe, is a process that differs but little according to circumstances.

It seems that Gillispie has finally begun his rebound from his recent, largely self-inflicted career destruction.  The former UK coach has checked into the John Lucas Athletes After Care program created by the former NBA star who struggled with alcohol and drug dependency while in the NBA.  Lucas finally hit bottom in Houston and decided to deal with his problem, and the long, torturous mountain trail back to redemption inspired Lucas to help others locate and follow him up that difficult route.

In a seemingly endless chain of irony, John Lucas was also the father of the big recruit Gillispie didn't get while at Kentucky, Jai Lucas, who opted instead to go to Florida and play for former UK assistant coach Billy Donovan.  The younger Lucas recently left the Gators after two years and has landed in Austin to play for the University of Texas.  He will serve a year in residence this year, and play in 2010-11.

In his book, Calipari talks about "getting out from under the covers."  What he means by that is getting out of bed and taking ownership of your situation, and making a decision to begin your "bounce back."  With his enrollment in Lucas' program, Kentucky fans and, indeed, all basketball fans can hope that Billy Gillispie will rebound strongly from this difficult setback and return to the profession he loves.  It won't be easy.  It won't be short.  And it will not happen if Gillispie does not stay on that winding, rocky path to redemption.

Godspeed, Coach Gillispie.  May you reach the summit quicky, and may your bounce back be a high one.