- Jason King
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A starting forward on last season's Texas Tech basketball team told ESPN.com on Friday that he had a "positive" experience in his one season under embattled coach Billy Gillispie.
"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."
Lewandowski was among a handful of people -- including NBA All-Star Deron Williams, Kansas coach Bill Self and former Big 12 Player of the Year Acie Law -- who came to Gillispie's defense the past two days, after allegations that he mistreated his Texas Tech players and committed NCAA secondary violations involving excessive practice time.
Although some players struggle to adapt to Gillispie's style, there are others who see its benefits and have flourished under his "tough love" approach.
"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?"
ESPN.com reported on Aug. 31 that current players had expressed concern to Texas Tech compliance officials and athletic director Kirby Hocutt about the way Gillispie was running the program. The same morning of the report -- and just hours before a scheduled meeting with Hocutt -- Gillispie was admitted to University Medical Center in Lubbock. He later told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that he'd been under stress and felt as if he was having a heart attack or a stroke.
Gillispie remained hospitalized for nearly a week before his release Thursday afternoon. Hocutt is traveling with Texas Tech's football team this weekend, so an announcement about Gillispie's future likely won't come until early next week.
In the meantime, Gillispie's supporters are stepping forward in an effort to help him keep his job.
"Someone needs to tell the other side of the story," said Andy Ellis, who played at Texas Tech under Bob Knight and spent the past two seasons as the color commentator for the Red Raiders' radio broadcasts. "[Gillispie] was hired to change the culture of a program, and, to do that, you've got to be tough.
"He's the best person for this job."
Ellis was a member of the Red Raiders' traveling party last season and regularly attended practice. He said that Gillispie was demanding but that he never saw the coach do anything inappropriate. In a report by CBSSports.com, former players such as Kevin Wagner and Jaron Nash accused Gillispie of verbal abuse and of forcing injured players to practice, sometimes until they openly wept. Eillis said the players -- who transferred after one season -- are "blowing things out of proportion."
"They're overreacting," Ellis said. "Obviously, those players are going to be mad. They're not here anymore.
"Today's generation of kids has been coddled. A lot of them are soft. There are high school kids playing on ESPN now and getting treated like kings. When you get to college and you're the seventh, eighth or ninth man, all of a sudden you've got to work hard. And they don't know how."
Texas Tech went 8-23 overall and 1-17 last season under Gillispie, who previously coached at UTEP, Texas A&M and Kentucky.
Gillispie also spent time at Tulsa and Illinois as an assistant under Bill Self, who remains one of Gillispie's closest friends. Self said the situation that has unraveled at Texas Tech has been "tough to watch."
"It's amazing to me how many experts they have who know exactly what it takes to win that have never, ever won -- or at least not at a high level," Self said. "Somehow they know more about winning than a guy who has proven he can do it.
"With Billy, you're talking about a guy that's gone from six wins to 24 wins (at UTEP). You've got a guy that has gone from zero conference wins (at Texas A&M) to the Sweet 16 in a short amount of time. He does have some experience doing it his way -- and doing it big. His way works. No one can deny that. His way works. It's going to take time. If you're a player or someone in his program, you've got to go through some things. 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."
Ellis said Texas Tech's struggles last season likely contributed to the tense atmosphere surrounding the program.
"It was a tough situation because they weren't any good," Ellis said. "It just wasn't a good Division I basketball team. Everyone around sports knows that losing makes practices worse. It makes everything worse. When you're on a bad team, a three-hour practice feels like it takes all day and like the coach is picking on you every second of it.
"Some of those guys complained that he broke them down and didn't build them back up, but it's hard to pat people on the back when you win one conference game. What was he supposed to congratulate them for?"
According to CBSSports.com, Gillispie instructed assistant coaches, team managers, trainers, broadcasters and anyone else at practice the night before a game to join the Red Raiders in a layup line. Anyone who missed a shot, fumbled the ball or shot it with the wrong hand was ordered to run the steps of the arena.
"It was demeaning to us as grown men," the source told the website.
Lewandowski and Ellis described the situation differently.
"This was Coach's way of starting off practice with some fun," Lewandowski said. "If you missed your layup, you had to run one section of the stairs. Nothing overly strenuous, and most people didn't bother to do it half the time. My memories only include laughing and smiling."
Ellis said: "It's not like he was making us sprint. You could walk up the stairs if you wanted. People were laughing. I never saw anyone get mad."
Ellis also said it didn't seem like a big deal when Gillispie ordered star freshman Jordan Tolbert to return to practice a day after ripping the webbing between his fingers. According to CBSSports.com, Gillispie ordered Tolbert -- who was wearing a bandage -- to dunk the ball every time he caught it.
"He'd been telling [Tolbert] that all year -- not just after he hurt his hand," Ellis said. "That's a phrase he keeps repeating to all his big guys: 'If you're near the basket, dunk it every time.' It wasn't like he said, 'He hurt his hand, so now I'm going to be mean and have him dunk it.' Plus, I've done that to three or four different fingers, where I've ripped the webbing and can see the inside of my hand. Once you tape the fingers together, you can't hurt it anymore. It's not going to get any worse."
Lewandowski responded to an allegation that Gillispie forced players to practice when they were injured. A source told CBSSports.com that forward Kader Tapsoba, who reportedly had stress fractures in both legs, began crying at practice because he was in such pain.
"I know he was hurt, and I know at one point when he was trying to get back on the court, he was in a lot of pain," Lewandowski said. "I do not know if he cried. He is a really tough kid and went through a lot last year. Coach did put a lot of pressure on injured players and a lot of pressure on our medical staff to take care of them."
Lewandowski stressed that he didn't want to throw any of his former teammates "under a bus" and that he only wanted to relay his own experience in a positive light.
Pushing players -- even injured ones -- to their limit has long been a Gillispie trademark. But when it happened at Texas A&M, the Aggies responded in a different manner. Joseph Jones, one of Gillispie's best players in his time in College Station, said playing hurt made him tougher.
"There were a couple of times I had a hurt ankle," Jones said in a phone call from the Dominican Republic, where he plays professionally. "He brought me into the middle of the circle with the whole team and said, 'Your team needs you to play.' It just showed me that it was time to grow up and take the reins and become a man and do what my team needed me to do. For me, that wasn't a bad thing. It needed to be done. But I never saw him put anyone in a position where they were going to get hurt or do further damage. It's not like he was telling guys to play with torn ACLs or anything.
"The four years I played for Coach G were the best four years of my life. He worked us hard, but he loved us and cared for us. That's why I think [Texas Tech's players] are just being soft. I've talked to a lot of college basketball players all across the country. Everything I went through, they went through. Practicing hard coaches in your face coaches doing everything they can to turn you into a man by teaching you life lessons through basketball. One thing [Gillispie] always said was, 'If you quit on your team, if you quit on the court, you'll quit in life.'"
News of Gillispie's problems at Texas Tech have been particularly troubling for Acie Law, the key figure in the Aggies' resurgence under Gillispie. In a telephone conversation Saturday from Greece, Law said he and his teammates had no problems with Gillispie's brash coaching style because they realized it was making them better.
"It's a different experience playing for him," Law said. "You're not going to find many coaches who coach the way he does. He's constantly pushing, constantly yelling. He's passionate and energetic. It's two or three hours of hard-ass work, and it's every day. A lot of players want to be successful but don't want to put the work into it.
"We loved him, and he loved us. There would be times when we'd sit down as a team and he would explain to us what he was pushing for. He'd get emotional sometimes and cry. You could see how much he cared about us, and that'd make us care about him. He didn't have a wife. He didn't have kids. He just had his basketball team, and he wanted to win so bad. I remember one time I saw him in the office at 7 a.m. and he said he was going to check on a recruit in Florida. He was back in College Station for practice by 3."
We loved him, and he loved us. There would be times when we'd sit down as a team and he would explain to us what he was pushing for. He'd get emotional sometimes and cry. You could see how much he cared about us, and that'd make us care about him.
”-- Former Texas A&M star Acie Law
Joshua Johnston spent one season with Gillispie at UTEP, then transferred to Texas A&M so he could continue playing for him. He said he understands why people outside of Gillispie's programs might think he's aloof or difficult to communicate with.
"He develops an us-against-the-world mentality," Johnston said. "I can see how people could come in from the outside and have an experience where he doesn't really talk to them or let them say much to his players. He's very protective of them."
Johnston recalled walking into Gillispie's office before a practice at UTEP. He told his coach that his sister had fallen ill. He said Gillispie grabbed his car keys from his desk and said, "Let's go."
"Where are we going?" Johnston asked.
"I'm taking you to the airport," Gillispie said. "There are things in life that are a lot more important than basketball."
When Gillispie was hired at Kentucky, he stood in the middle of the Wildcats' locker room and rattled off his phone number to his new players.
"Keep this for the rest of your lives," he said. "If you ever need anything, I'll be there for you."
Gillispie, though, never experienced the kind of success at Kentucky that he enjoyed at Texas A&M. Some believe the spotlight in Lexington overwhelmed him. He had trouble connecting with alumni, clashed with athletic director Mitch Barnhart and, for the most part, never reached his players.
Gillispie was named SEC Coach of the Year after leading the injury-riddled Wildcats to the NCAA tournament in his inaugural season. But he was fired a year later after Kentucky folded down the stretch and settled for the NIT.
Still, it's not as if players ever questioned his ability to coach. One of the more publicized incidents in Gillispie's tenure involved forward Josh Harrellson, who so enraged his coach that, during halftime of a game at Vanderbilt, Gillispie ordered Harrellson to listen to his speech from a bathroom stall because he didn't want to look at him anymore. Instead of the team bus, Gillispie told Harrellson to ride back to Lexington in the equipment truck.
Harrellson, though, didn't seem to hold any ill will toward Gillispie when asked about the incident at the 2011 Final Four.
"Coach Gillispie is a very smart coach," said Harrellson, adding that he still keeps in touch with his former coach. "He knew basketball. I don't think he had the best way of teaching it. But I'm very thankful for what he did. He made all of us mentally tough. He made all three of us [Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins] be able to do things we've never been able to do before. It's probably why we're here today, because of how mentally tough he made us."
Things have gone south for Gillispie ever since he left Kentucky.
Five months after his firing, Gillispie was arrested on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol in Lawrenceburg, Ky. -- his third DUI arrest since 1999. (The second charge was later dismissed.) A few weeks later, in September 2009, he checked into the John Lucas After Care Program in Houston.
"Billy isn't an alcoholic," Lucas said after Gillispie completed the program. "He was just making some bad choices."
Instead of coaching, Gillispie spent the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons working for charitable organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Boys & Girls Club. He also spent time in his hometown of Graford, Texas, caring for his mother, Winfred, who succumbed to lung cancer in January 2011.
Shortly after taking the Texas Tech job, he was among a handful of coaches who lost millions to a Ponzi scheme by former AAU basketball operator David Salinas, who committed suicide last summer. Sports Illustrated reported that Gillispie invested $2.3 million in corporate bonds.
This summer, Gillispie's nephew drowned after falling off a WaveRunner.
Considering what he's been through in the past few years -- not to mention the 23 losses he endured in his first season in Lubbock -- those closest to Gillispie said they can understand why stress caused his blood pressure to elevate to dangerously high levels last week.
As Texas Tech officials prepare to make a decision about Gillispie's future, they can only hope things change for their former coach.
Williams, the Olympian and NBA All-Star who was recruited to Illinois by Gillispie when the coach was an assistant with the Illini, said he still talks to Gillispie regularly.
"Hopefully he'll get another chance," Williams said. "Certain players respond to certain styles of coaching. As a coach, I guess you have to figure those things out. I remember Coach [Bill] Self said some things to me that I couldn't repeat and you couldn't write. Same with Coach [Bruce] Weber and my high school coach. That's how it is. Kids have to learn to deal with that stuff. It's almost like a father scolding you. Some people can handle it; some people can't.
"Plus, any time you transfer, you're going to have bad blood. Guys usually don't leave programs because they're happy. A lot of kids think they should be playing more. Then they leave and have bad things to say. You never know what the situation is."
Looking back, Law said Gillispie probably never should've left Texas A&M.
"It was the perfect situation for him," Law said. "He had a chance to do something really special. I can't blame him for taking the Kentucky job. It's a dream job. But they would've named the court after him at A&M.
"No matter what, I know where his heart is. I know he wants to be good. His work ethic is second to none. It's just a matter of him finding a group of guys that understands what he's trying to do."
Self hopes Gillispie is given that opportunity at Texas Tech.
"They've got to do what is best for the athletic department and the university," Self said. "But from my vantage point, Billy is what's best. I hope he has a chance to continue as long as it's within the guidelines of what is placed in front of him. I think it'd be very fair. If things need to be corrected, I hope he's given an opportunity to correct them.
"I find most of these (accusations) hard to imagine, because I know him, and what's been reported isn't the Billy I know."