Gillispie supporters impossible to dismiss

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
2:19
PM ET
The allegations leveled against Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie last week -- that he frequently broke rules governing practice length, forced players to practice for eight hours at a time, forced players to play and practice when injured, that he doesn't interact well with assistant coaches and program staffers, and more in an ongoing litany of offenses that caused players to openly revolt and appeal to Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt last week -- may already be too much for Gillispie to overcome. Last week, as these revelations took on a life of their own, it was impossible to imagine Tech keeping Gillispie around for any other reason than legally binding contract requirements. He seemed done, and rightfully so. Things in Lubbock had gone horribly awry.

Since then, though, something strange -- well, if not strange, then at least surprising -- has happened: Billy Clyde has received an outpouring of support. On Saturday, ESPN.com's Jason King published a story quoting former players who spoke out on behalf of their old coach, including Robert Lewandowski, who started for Gillispie last season and plays professionally in Poland now:
"I would play for him again," Robert Lewandowski wrote in an email from Poland, where he plays professionally. "He loves his players, with no exceptions. I would never doubt that for a second. Playing for him was tough, but I came out alive and a better person for it."

"I wouldn't change anything that happened over the last four years," said Lewandowski, who spent three seasons under Pat Knight before Gillispie was hired in March 2011. "Coach Gillispie pushed me to my physical and mental limits, and I came out an improved person. I know I can handle anything that comes my way. The process wasn't very pretty, but isn't that how life usually is?"

Current Texas Tech broadcaster Andy Ellis -- who played for Bob Knight at the program and traveled with the team throughout last season -- told King that he never saw Gillispie cross the line last season. Other accounts from former players were similar: Gillispie was a difficult guy, sure, and he could be tough, but he wasn't the full-on bad guy caricature other accounts had made him out to be.

Another defense came from Kansas coach Bill Self. Self admitted Gillispie was "tough," but he also questioned new players' concerns about a program's overall well-being ("To have players who have only been in a program for a year or two and be such experts on what it takes to win and how to be treated is a little bit hard to grasp," Self said). Self said that all coaches have looked back on situations they could have handled better, and said that he found it necessary to speak on behalf of an old friend, but more importantly a fellow coach, because Gillispie's side of the story had been under-represented:
"I'm sure he's done some things as a coach that he looked back on and said, 'Whoa ... I got up against the line today. I toed the line a little bit.' But you know what? We've all done that at some point in time when we're trying to get our teams prepared to play at a high level. Ask any coach in America, and he'll tell you there was a time when he said something when he was under stress or something he did under the gun where he went back and said, 'Ooohhh, I wish I would've handled that differently.' [...]

"I'm not defending him. He's a good friend, but that's not why I'm talking. I would defend any coach in a situation where he's trying to do things a certain way to get his program to the point where he thinks it deserves to be. Mistreatment of players should never occur, but there are also two sides to every story. That certainly appears to be the case here, because after hearing from his enemies early, now we've heard from guys who say, 'Oh man, he was so hard on me, but I'm a better man for it.' Including players in his current program.

Perhaps the most authoritative voice speaking on Gillispie's behalf came from Jerry Nash, father of former Texas Tech transfer Jaron Nash. Nash, who transferred to North Dakota after spending one season under Gillispie at Texas Tech, told CBSSports.com that one day Gillispie forced players to practice "almost all day," to the point that several players suffered injuries, including one player who "had a stress fracture in both legs." But on Sunday, Nash's father, Jerry Nash, disputed the impression his son's quote had given about his former coach. He told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that his son's decision to transfer had "nothing to do with Gillispie"; instead, Nash transferred to be closer to Jerry Nash, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
“A big part of fighting MS is not getting depressed, trying to stay positive,” Jerry Nash said. “Being able to see Jaron play, that’s everything to me.”

Jaron Nash heeded his father’s wishes and asked for his scholarship release following last season. Jerry Nash said he appreciates the way Gillispie handled the situation, and it didn’t stop at allowing his son’s release, he said.

Shortly after Nash was granted that release, Gillispie helped enter the Tech team into an awareness walk for multiple sclerosis around Jones AT&T Stadium as a tribute to Jerry Nash, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1999, he said.

“When Ron-Ron showed me video of that,” Jerry Nash said, “it brought tears to my eyes.”

[...] “Billy Gillispie is a friend of mine,” Jerry Nash said. “I consider him a great coach, a great person and a great man.”

Where do we go from here? It's hard to say. But just as it seemed impossible for Gillispie to keep his job last week, it's equally impossible to fully dismiss the wide-ranging defenses offered by fellow coaches and former players and their families. Texas Tech may be eager to move on, to end the Gillispie era, to get out of an ugly public relations disaster as swiftly and painlessly as possible. But would that be fair? Given the last three days of testimonials on his behalf, Tech can no longer hurry to its this decision. It needs to investigate of its own volition -- Hocutt and his staff are deeply engaged in this process by now -- and see which charges stand up to scrutiny, and which fall away.

Because on one side is the portrait of a coaching monster, a guy who would do anything to win, who can't get along with players, who is willing to injure them in the pursuit of some higher toughness ideal. On the other side is a man who brought a former player's father to tears with a charitable gesture, a man who has received support from former players including those on the disaster that was the 2011-12 Red Raiders. What do you do with such contrasting accounts?

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. It is now up to Hocutt and his staff to decide how far to either side that truth lies, and what it means for Gillispie's perilous future in the coaching profession.

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