‘People love a comeback story.’ Tarleton State giving Billy Gillispie another shot

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Kansas’ Bill Self called him one of the best builders of programs in college basketball. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo raved about his work ethic. Houston’s Kelvin Sampson called it a “grand slam” hire.

Tarleton State made headlines this week by hiring Billy Gillispie as its next men’s basketball coach. The Stephenville-based school views Gillispie as the perfect guy to lead the Texans’ transition into Division-I and the WAC next season.

The school formally introduced Gillispie with a virtual news conference on Tuesday after reaching a four-year contract with former Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech coach.

Gillispie expects to make an instant impact.

“We’re going in here trying to win,” Gillispie said. “We’re not trying to win 15 years from now. We’re going in trying to win now. It’s not a bold statement. It’s just a fact. That’s what we’ve said when we took over every single situation we’ve been at and most of them we’ve followed through.

“The only way you do that is to get great, great, great players. We will definitely do it again. We have so much to offer in this town, this area, this university.”

Gillispie struck the right tone throughout his opening news conference, talking about the peaks and valleys of his career and life.

He vowed to learn from his mistakes, whether it was putting too much pressure on himself and players to win at previous stops such as Texas Tech and Kentucky, or handling situations differently.

For Tarleton State, though, Gillispie is worth the risk given his track record.

He turned UTEP into an NCAA Tournament team in two years. He took a Texas A&M program that was winless in conference play the year before he arrived and had it in the Sweet 16 three years later.

As Tarleton State president Dr. James Hurley said, “Coach Gillispie, like all of us, has encountered a few setbacks and challenges along life’s journey that would certainly merit him giving up. But because of the love, compassion and fortitude of people around him, he is here today.”


Gillispie was once viewed as one of the top coaching prospects in college basketball. He turned around UTEP and Texas A&M, and then landed one of the most coveted jobs in the sport when Kentucky hired him in 2007.

But things never panned out. He was named the SEC’s coach of the year his first season, reaching the NCAA Tournament, before landing in the NIT in his second season.

He had a well-publicized fallout with the school after that.

Gillispie then resurfaced at Texas Tech in 2011, but lasted only one season, winning just one Big 12 game. He resigned citing health concerns, but also had allegations of player mistreatment.

Gillispie didn’t specifically revisit the player mistreatment allegations, nor his short stint at Kentucky. But he reflected back on the good and the bad from his days coaching at the highest level.

“I’ve had so many peaks, but there’s been some valleys associated with Billy Gillispie too whether it was health or whether it was bad decisions by me,” Gillispie said. “I might’ve approached the last two Division I jobs (Kentucky and Texas Tech) a little bit different because I just felt so much pressure. We’ve got to win the national championship at Kentucky. We’ve got to get this Texas Tech thing turned around immediately.

“I probably put too much pressure on myself. I probably put too much pressure on our staff to perform. I probably put too much pressure on the players because of the success that we had. That’s not going to make us try to slow down any (at Tarleton State), but we’re going to learn from it and try to be better.”

For as much baggage as Gillispie might have from previous stops, a number of players spoke on his behalf in a news release sent out by Tarleton State.

Surely not by coincidence, there were a couple Texas Tech players — Jordan Tolbert and Dusty Hannahs — quoted in it. Other players such as former Texas A&M greats Acie Law IV and Joseph Jones gave complimentary quotes on Gillispie as well.

“I feel like America loves a good redemption story, so why not him?” Tolbert said. “He really cares as a coach and person. We’ve stayed in contact over the years.”

Added Jones: “He’s tough but he gets the best out of you. Coach Gillispie has been a great person for my life and my family.”

Izzo also addressed Gillispie’s “demanding” personality in his quote, saying: “I always say holding people accountable is what’s needed today and I think Coach Gillispie does that in a good way, not a bad way.”

Gillispie’s latest stop has been in the junior college ranks at Ranger College. He’s been successful at Ranger on the court, reaching the National Junior College Championship game in 2019, but had a few obstacles along the way.

In his debut season at Ranger in 2015-16, Ranger forfeited all its wins (31-7) for using an ineligible player.

Then, midway through his second season, Gillispie announced his retirement after battling high blood pressure. He later made it through a life-threatening health scare when a woman, Erika Downey, donated her kidney to him in the spring of 2018.

Downey was one of a few people on hand at Gillispie’s news conference.

At the end of the day, Gillispie embraces being a comeback story. He feels that’s why people connect and relate to him.

“He’s been knocked down a few times, physically or otherwise,” Gillispie said. “And he just will not stop. He won’t quit. People love a comeback story. I think there’s so many people that have 100% confidence we’ll knock this thing out of the park.”


Tarleton State has enjoyed a successful run in men’s basketball at the Division II level, reaching the Final Four twice (2005, 2015) and making the tournament eight times in the last decade.

Despite the jump to D-I, Gillispie expects to remain just as competitive. Easier said than done, of course, as the WAC has several respected coaches.

Bryce Drew was recently hired at Grand Canyon University after a stint at Vanderbilt. Chris Jans has turned New Mexico State into a powerhouse. And Mark Madsen, the former NBA player and assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, just completed his first season at Utah Valley.

Gillispie adds another recognizable name to the league, but faces an uphill battle at the start.

The Texans won’t be eligible for the NCAA Tournament until the 2024-25 season as they go through their transition period.

“I’ve already done my homework on that,” Gillispie said, smiling. “We have 227 teams that haven’t made the NCAA Tournament in the last three years, so Tarleton is tied with those. In Texas, only 11 of the 23 teams have made the tournament the last three years.

“People are going to use that, but believe me we have a lot of ammunition.”

Gillispie pointed to the fact that Tarleton could still compete for the NIT and other postseason tournaments. If the Texans win the WAC’s regular-season championship, for instance, they would get an automatic berth into the NIT.

“We can play in other tournaments that they have in postseason,” Gillispie said. “The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal for everyone. That’s the one you want to be in, but we’ll be playing for the postseason.”


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