In a very candid and revealing interview with Lex, Buds, & Pick N’ Roll, the former Kentucky Coach discusses Jodie Meeks, his feelings on coming back to Rupp, and why UK fans might need cough syrup.
I still vividly remember the day Billy Gillispie was introduced as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. It was during Spring Break of my Senior year of college. And as I’m sure most of my fellow Colonels at EKU were doing that week, I was sitting at home in my pajamas watching SportsCenter.
It had been about 2 weeks since Tubby Smith resigned, and despite the fact that your cousin’s neighbor’s realtor had assured you that Billy Donovan had been in Lexington to close the deal on a house, UK was still without a head basketball coach. Everyone was getting a little antsy, and as days grew into weeks, the speculation only increased.
When SportsCenter was interrupted with breaking news, I thought maybe this could be it. And it was. Right there across the bottom of the screen read the words that brought an unexplainable amount of joy to me: Billy Gillispie was the new head coach at the University of Kentucky.
At that moment, I really knew nothing about Coach Gillispie, other than the fact he had defeated our arch nemesis Rick Pitino to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament that year (that game just so happened to be played at Rupp Arena). Combine that with Tubby failing to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament again, and that was already enough for me to get behind Billy as the next coach.
Then came the press conference, in which he uttered one phrase that made me an ardent supporter of his for the next 2 seasons. When asked about the political process of a coaching search and whether Kentucky had been in contact with his representatives for a while, Billy responded, “I don’t have representatives. I’m an old country boy.” YES!
As a kid who grew up in the 606, this was EXACTLY what I wanted to hear from my basketball coach. Someone who doesn’t care about the money, the spotlight, or anything else other than coaching basketball. It seemed to be a match made in heaven.
We all know how this ended 2 seasons later, and there have been countless stories about the downfall of Billy Gillispie. The DUI, the mistreatment of players, the off the court issues, etc. But with it having been over a decade since we said goodbye to Billy and lived through one of the golden ages of Kentucky basketball under John Calipari, we wanted Coach Gillispie to be able to show a different side to UK fans.
Having just been announced as the new coach at Tarleton State University, and the fact that he is quarantined like the rest of us, we wondered if now might be the perfect time for Billy to come on a podcast with 2 Kentucky buds to talk about his new opportunity and reflect on his time in Lexington. We thought it might be a long shot, but we sent the media request to Tarleton State anyway. I didn’t exactly have high hopes that he would say yes. To my knowledge Billy has not done an interview with any Kentucky media since his departure.
So when we got word that not only would Coach Gillispie come on our show, but would give us a 30 minute interview, we were ecstatic. For the next 2 days we stayed in a constant mood of excitement and nervousness as we didn’t want to screw this up. Then at 3:00pm on Tuesday, April 14th, the phone rang with a phone number from Stephenville, Texas. “Hello, this is Billy Gillispie.” What followed was one of the coolest experiences of my life as Coach talked honestly and candidly about his time at UK and his excitement for what is to come at Tarleton State.
If you want to listen to the full 30 minute podcast interview with Coach Gillispie, you can find it here on Anchor.fm or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or most other podcast providers. But for those of you who might be too busy* here are the top 5 takeaways from our conversation with the ex-UK coach:
1. Coach Gillispie would “love” to bring Tarleton State to Rupp Arena to play Kentucky. Truth be told, when we were coming up with our questions for this interview, we were excited to talk about all of them, but this is the question we REALLY wanted to know the most. With Rick Pitino already having said publicly he would like to play Kentucky, would Coach Gillispie want to as well? His answer exceeded expectations: “We could actually get all 3 of us together and Tubby and just have a round robin tournament and just play for 3 or 4 days.” He also noted, “everybody would have to get some cough medicine because they’d be booing 3 of the 4 coaches. They’d need somebody to take care of their throats.”
Let me just say I am ALL IN on a round-robin tournament with UK, Iona, High Point, and Tarleton State. If someone in the UK Athletics Department isn’t working on this right now they should all be fired. I can’t think of ANY game that would excite season ticket holders more than that. Can you imagine: Cal vs. Rick, Cal vs. Billy, Billy vs. Rick, Billy vs Tubby, Tubby vs. Rick, and Cal vs. Tubby all played out over a weekend?
2. Coach Gillispie confessed that he did not have enough talent during his tenure at Kentucky. When asked about what it was like to coach at UK, Billy had a very telling reply in which he said “there’s nowhere better in the world to coach than Kentucky when you have the players, and when you don’t have the players there’s probably nowhere in the world that’s tougher.” What exactly did he mean by that? Well, I don’t think he was implying that he didn’t have enough TOTAL players, as there were 18 players on the roster in his first season (If you remember the names Kerry Benson and Dusty Mills you are a True Blue fan).
I think you can interpret this in a couple ways. This could be him saying that when he arrived at UK the cupboard was bare from the end of the Tubby era. While there was a decent amount of talent his first year (Bradley, Crawford, Patterson, Meeks), by his 2nd year, it was clearly a 2 man show where Meeks and Patterson would have to carry the load every game without much help.
Or maybe this was an admission on his part that he was unable to recruit at the level needed to win at Kentucky (PPat was the only 5-star recruit of the Gillispie era). Either way, I found it very interesting that Billy basically admitted that he didn’t have the talent it takes to win at an elite level.
3. Billy Gillispie is a basketball savant. Listening to him talk about Jodie Meeks’ historic 54-point game against Tennessee was like watching any scene with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. When we asked him about that game, I was expecting a general overview, but the man remembered everything! He remembered that Jodie took exactly 22 shots. He remembered that he was 10-15 from the 3-point line, 5-7 on two-point shots, and 14-14 from the FT line. After the interview was over we fact-checked each of these, and much to our amazement, he was spot-on with all of them.
Not to mention the countless other facts he pointed out during the interview, like that Pikeville College played a 1-3-1 zone in his first game at UK, and you’re left wondering just how in the heck this man remembers it all. We’ve all heard the stories of the amount of game film Gillispie watches, and after our interview I absolutely believe those stories to be true. Oh, and he also admitted that he didn’t answer that infamous halftime interview question about Jodie very nicely.
4. I think that he genuinely misses Lexington. Say what you will about his time here, but I don’t think we will ever have a coach who lives for coaching basketball as much as Billy Gillispie. I don’t think he had ever been somewhere where he was surrounded by people who love the game as much as he does, until he got to Kentucky. He pointed out that he loved the people of Kentucky, loved horse-racing, has many friends still here, and that “it was a great time in my life.” In addition to missing the fried chicken, Coach also reminisced on how much he loved hearing “My Old Kentucky Home” at the Derby and at the end of every home basketball game. “What a great song that is and when they played it at our games there was nothing better.” he said. As Kentuckians we all hold that song very near and dear to our hearts, so it was nice to know that Coach Gillispie held such a deep appreciation for it as well.
5. Billy seems genuinely happy and grateful to be coaching a Division 1 program again. It’s very clear how much this job opportunity at Tarleton State means to him, and he reiterated that he has “been given a second chance on life,” both with this job and with his kidney donor and now close friend Erika Downey. I know some may find it hard to feel sorry for a millionaire who played golf alone all day between coaching jobs, but when he told the story of being on the golf course by himself because all his friends had jobs and were working, well you realize just how much this man needs the game of basketball in his life. I have no doubt that Billy was 100% serious when he said “we are trying to win a national championship” at Tarelton State. But regardless of whether that happens or not, I truly hope that Coach Gillispie has found some inner-peace, and that the demons of his past have been put to rest. He definitely gained 2 supporters for life after this interview was over. I will be rooting hard for Tarleton State this year.
Assuming this quarantine ends at some point, Brandon and I fully intend to make good on our promise to attend a game in Stephenville, Texas during the season.
*You can’t go anywhere right now, so listen to this instead of watching Tiger King a 3rd time.