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Thursday, September 6, 2012
Dana O'Neil on Billy Gillispie before the fall

By Eamonn Brennan

ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil has a unique perspective on Billy Gillispie. In 2009, during Gillipsie's second year at Kentucky -- the year the Wildcats (gasp) failed to make the NCAA tournament, a failure that cost Gillispie his job -- Dana was granted an all-access pass inside the Kentucky program. The resulting story painted a picture of a program and a fan base that together had no idea how to handle the prospect of missing the NCAA tournament -- led by a guy who was in way over his head:
This is a team sinking under the albatross of scrutiny. Players sag under the heavy burden of a state's expectations and a program's glorious history books. In a situation desperate for a practical joke or a silly movie to cut the tension, there is nothing but the seriousness of basketball.

It is the coach's way of operating. A self-described basketball junkie who says he has "no balance" in his life, Billy Gillispie isn't one for small talk or normal social interaction. He sits alone on the team charter plane and bus, reading, sleeping or looking out the window. He is all basketball business, a man who ends each pregame session and film session with a "Let's go to work.''

[...] There is no doubt that Gillispie is a tough nut to crack. He says he has a small circle that he keeps close, rarely letting outsiders in. It's probably not a bad way to be when your every muscle tick is dissected. But while Gillispie's need for privacy is understandable, his standoffish behavior is hard to comprehend. He has been brusque with the media, both local and national, and his rude dismissals of ESPN sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards have been a hot topic in Kentucky.

He is not one to engage in small talk with anyone, brushing into and out of meeting rooms, locker rooms and breakfast rooms with a purposeful stride. This behavior probably didn't register much at his previous head coaching stops in El Paso (UTEP) and College Station (Texas A&M), but it jumps off the Richter scale in a Kentucky mired in a basketball debacle.

At the time, from the outside, it was hard not to look at Gillispie's faults -- the workaholism, the unforgiving intensity, the awkward interactions with players, the inability to understand the UK fan base -- as flaws magnified as much by the environment as by Gillispie himself. Things had gone south in the nation's most highly scrutinized basketball program; of course Gillispie looked like he was losing his team. But weren't those same flaws the reason Gillispie was so successful early in his career? Wasn't Kentucky a different beast? If he couldn't turn the thing around, you could at least come away thinking the fit was the problem, that Gillispie could return to coaching at a less scrutinized place and still rekindle his old success. Texas Tech certainly fit the bill.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear Gillispie did as much as anyone -- if not much, much more -- to hasten his downfall. It was more than him just not "getting it." It wasn't Kentucky; it was him. And now Texas Tech finds itself in this mess.

On Thursday, Dana revisited her time with Gillispie for a retrospective feature, and needless to say, our intrepid reporter was hardly flabbergasted by the revelations surrounding Gillispie's treatment of players at Texas Tech. From her commentary:
The Gillispie I met was standoffish to the point of being rude, a taciturn drill sergeant with his players who lacked the ability or interest to engage personally with them even for a minute.

I left fully expecting Kentucky to fire him after the NIT -- which happened -- but convinced it wouldn't be because of his below-UK win-loss standards; it would be because of his insular and abrasive personality.

He was coaching in the biggest bubble in college basketball, yet bristled at everyday interaction. He treated people associated with the program with either disinterest or disdain, disenfranchised the fan base that once greeted him with open arms, disenchanted the athletic director that hired him and most important of all, lost his team.

[...] I have logged more than a few hundred hours around basketball coaches and their players. News flash: Coaches aren't always nice. They can be downright mean when they have to be.

But always there is a place for levity -- at the end of a practice, on the bus, the plane, somewhere the other side of the relationship is apparent. There is banter and fun.

Not at Kentucky. In four days, I never saw Gillispie have anything other than basketball-related interactions with his players.

Gillispie ended every conversation, broke every huddle, by saying, "Let's go to work," and that is exactly what it was -- joyless work for the players. In a situation desperate to break the oppression of misery and the stress of losing, there was not even the briefest of respites.