|ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball||[Print without images]|
The televisions inside the bus that day focused on the breaking news: The Dallas Cowboys had parted ways with their malcontent wide receiver, Terrell Owens.
Seated with the Kentucky administrators and coaches in the front seats, I debated with them the merits and faults of the wayward Owens. It was idle talk, typical sports prattle to fill the short ride from the airport to the hotel.
Sitting in front of me -- in the first seat on the right -- was the head coach, Billy Gillispie, a self-described Cowboys fanatic, a guy who days later would tell me, "When the Cowboys are losing or something, I think I have all the answers."
But on this day, he didn't say a word. Not about Owens, not about anything.
|The constant pressure of coaching at a blue blood institution like Kentucky appeared to have been too much for Billy Gillispie to handle.|
Not even hello.
He simply looked out the window, and when the bus pulled up to the hotel entrance, he grabbed his bag, and walked off and through the sliding doors.
That was three years ago, when I was tasked by ESPN.com to do an all-access assignment with Kentucky at the end of the season (which can be found here).
After just two seasons, it would be the end of the line for Gillispie, as a four-game losing skid and an embarrassing home loss to Georgia would push the Wildcats into the NIT and ultimately Gillispie out of Lexington.
Fast forward to today with the news out of Lubbock, of a players insurrection at Texas Tech first reported by Andy Katz and Jason King last week, bolstered with more alleged details uncovered this week by CBSSports.com, and I can only say I'm not surprised.
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 for even 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-standards win-loss record; 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 who hired him and, most important of all, lost his team.
Kentucky was in the midst of its 2009 spiral when Gillispie agreed to the all-access. I was slightly stunned he said yes and even more so after the Wildcats lost to LSU a week before I arrived.
I headed to Lexington with an understanding that I would be permitted in the locker room before games, at the half and after games; that I could sit and talk with Gillispie, the staff and the players; that basically, as the term implied, I'd have access to the program.
I had done several all-access features before and have done several since. It's not always a comfortable dance. As much as a coach might agree to swing wide the doors to his program, he's never quite sure what that means until the reporter arrives. But usually there's a grudging acceptance that he has agreed to the access and then he lets you in.
Literally and figuratively.
At Kentucky, I was literally locked out of the locker room, and at one point, after I was told I could come in, I was asked to leave by Gillispie.
I had exactly one sit-down interview with the coach -- and that was on the last day of the trip; could talk to the players only at practice or after a game with the other reporters; and was even called into his office and yelled at for having the audacity to speak to a player's mother without his permission.
Forget all-access. I couldn't get conversation. Gillispie stood across from me at the breakfast buffet and never so much as looked up to say, "Good morning."
|After successful stints at UTEP and Texas A&M, Gillispie lasted just two seasons in Lexington.|
Of course, Gillispie didn't have to be nice to me, and after our encounter over the parent interview, he probably wasn't going to be.
Except he treated others the same way, people he couldn't afford to disenfranchise.
He never once engaged with his assistant coaches about anything other than basketball. Off camera, he lit into the host of "The Billy Gillispie Show" because the reporter on air asked him how he responds to criticism that he'd lost his team.
But mostly what struck me was how Gillispie treated 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.
Nearly three weeks after I left, Kentucky fired Gillispie. He stayed away from the game until 2011, when Texas Tech extended him an olive branch.
I honestly thought he'd be great there. There was no question he could coach. He'd succeeded in his native Lone Star State at UTEP and Texas A&M, and I figured a job with a little less intensity and scrutiny than Kentucky would serve him well.
Instead there have been reports and rumors about disgruntled staff members since he arrived, assistant coach departures and now this, a player revolution.
A former staff member once told me, in an attempt to defend Gillispie's behavior, that he was merely "socially awkward."
I told him a child is socially awkward. A grown man makes a choice.
Billy Gillispie made choices, and now he's paying the price with his reputation -- and perhaps his career.