At an upscale steakhouse in downtown Atlanta during Final Four week in 2007, Bill Self and Billy Gillispie shared some dinner and some laughs. Close friends, the former Illinois head coach and his assistant both were approaching the apexes of their careers. Self was coming off a second Elite Eight appearance with Kansas and was a season away from winning a national championship. Gillispie, then the head coach at Texas A&M, had inherited a program that was 0-16 in the Big 12 and, in three years, taken it to the Sweet 16. A handful of days later, Gillispie would be hired at Kentucky, the biggest job in college basketball.
On the way out of the restaurant, the two men stopped at our table to exchange some pleasantries. They ended up staying awhile longer, providing some funny-yet-nuanced critique to a potential early top 25 list for the following season that our group had been discussing. They then headed out into the night, still all smiles, and no one at the table could have remotely guessed the divergent roads the two men would take over the next five years.
This vignette flashed back in vivid clarity this past weekend when Self, in the wake of serious allegations of player mistreatment and rules breaking against Gillispie at his latest job at Texas Tech, called ESPN.com's Jason King to give a lengthy defense of his former assistant. While Self correctly noted that multiple former players had surfaced in support of Gillispie and that there were multiple sides to any story before the truth could fully be known, the one quote that really stood out was this one:
"I considered him to be one of my closest friends for a long time. But I haven't spoken to Billy in about a month," Self told King. "We still stay in contact, but not like we used to. It used to be a three or four times a week thing. He's backed off a little bit, but that's only because we play in the same league now."
Last I checked, Texas A&M and Kansas are also in the same conference, and that didn't seem to impact the two men's relationship at that time. What it implies is that Gillispie, who picked up repeat DUI charges and burned through two new programs since that celebratory night in Atlanta, could be hitting rock bottom. Current health issues and family-related stresses have landed him in multiple hospital stays as this story swirls around him, and when you start pushing away close friends as your own life spirals, that's a strong indication of where you could be headed.
Perhaps as interesting, Texas Tech now finds itself at a serious crossroads as an athletic department and as a university. While a different athletic director and different school presidents were in charge when coaches with questionable personal demeanors were hired prior to Gillispie, the university's track record is speaking loudly about the type of men it employs to guide its student-athletes.
Bob Knight had a relatively docile time in Lubbock after more celebrated successes and personal failings at Indiana, but he was brought on by longtime friend (and Texas Tech coach prior to ascending to athletic director) Gerald Myers and operated in a friendly vacuum for most of his seven seasons there. When Knight stepped down midseason in 2008, coach-in-waiting (and son) Pat Knight took over the job. Knight the Younger had an unsuccessful three-plus seasons in charge, going 12-36 in Big 12 play. He was fired and took the job at Lamar, where he had a famous post-game press conference in which he torched the seniors he inherited (a few weeks before they helped him land a surprise auto-bid to the NCAAs).
Throw in the sensational firing of Mike Leach from the school's football program after allegations (possibly false, at least in the primary case of Adam James) of player mistreatment in addition to the rapid crisis point Gillispie has reached after just one season on campus, and the school now has a decision to make. While one player's abuse is another's hard practice, there is no uncertainty about the mold from which the university has hired, especially to head its basketball program: Hard-nosed, stubborn, combative with players, and in the two primary cases, looking for some redemption after ugly exits elsewhere.
Can the Red Raider administration continue down this same path, either endorsing the under-fire Gillispie or replacing him with yet another from this same cloth? The program has been nationally irrelevant for the past five seasons and, even with the uptick in success and attendance during the best seasons of Bob Knight's era at the school, the program only has three NCAA wins since the Big 12 began play in 1996-97. That's one fewer than the years of probation the school was slapped with in the late '90s, with punishments that helped torpedo James Dickey's tenure and led to Knight's hiring to begin with.
Texas Tech is never going to be a basketball school, but the way it jettisoned Leach, the architect of the rise of Red Raider football, makes you wonder why it's been so much more cavalier with its basketball program. Hiring for relevance is nice, but the culture those hires created has now been fully exposed. It may be too late for Billy Gillispie to save a career that appeared in absolute ascendancy five years ago, but it's not for him to save himself personally, which hopefully is a byproduct of these hospital stays (beyond possible legal maneuvering regarding an exit). It's definitely not too late for Texas Tech to figure out what it needs to do. Abuse or not, exaggerations or not, something has been simmering in Lubbock for awhile now. Your move, Kirby Hocutt.