LEXINGTON, Ky. - Billy Gillispie peeked at the seven national championship banners and didn't flinch. He welcomes the pressure of coaching at college basketball's winningest school.
"You want to be at a place that expects to win every single game," said Gillispie, the former Texas A&M coach who was hired Friday to replace Tubby Smith. "You want to be at a place that gives you the opportunity to win every single game, and this is the place."
Is it ever.
Kentucky's legions of fans can be famously passionate but notoriously critical when a season doesn't end with a Final Four trip.
Smith spent a decade in the spotlight's glare before heading to Minnesota on March 22. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart didn't approach Gillispie until Florida coach Billy Donovan decided to stay with the Gators rather than return to the place where he began his coaching career as an assistant under Rick Pitino.
Gillispie hardly seemed bothered that he was not the first choice to become just the sixth head coach at Kentucky in the past 76 years.
"If I was anywhere before seventh or eighth, I'd be happy," he said. "I couldn't care less."
Gillispie, 47, understands the demands of the 24,000 assistant coaches who pack Rupp Arena every winter and question everything.
And it's why he didn't hesitate when offered the seven-year contract that will pay him $2.3 million a year, with another $850,000 in performance and academic bonuses available if he can return the school to its perch among the elite.
"I like expectations," he said. "My most favorite year was this one, when we had pressure. And that expectation, it either drives you or it diminishes your ability - and my ability isn't diminished by expectations."
If anything, it's driven him. The confessed workaholic is 100-58 in five seasons as a coach. He needed just two years to rebuild UTEP between 2002 and 2004 before moving on to Texas A&M, where he molded the perennial Big 12 also-rans into contenders. The Aggies went 27-7 this season, making it to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the first time in 27 years.
As celebratory as Gillispie's introduction was - there were signs at a pep rally that read "Billy G., our savior," and screams of "We love you Billy" as he addressed fans at Memorial Coliseum - he knows the cheers will fade if he doesn't produce. Dubbed a "miracle worker" by some for his success at UTEP and Texas A&M, Gillispie is the only one in NCAA history to coach the nation's most improved team in two consecutive seasons. Still, he doesn't think any miracles will be necessary to restore some of the shine to this storied basketball school. "This program got turned around like 2,000 years ago and it's been turned around ever since," Gillispie said. "Since they started putting those nets up there and used a round ball, they never needed a turnaround." Kentucky went 22-12 last season, losing to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Not a bad year by most standards, except maybe at Kentucky, now in the unaccustomed spot of five double-digit loss seasons in the past eight years. While the players said they were stunned by Smith's departure, they're eager to get to work for Gillispie, who said he'll play "whatever kind of style helps us win."
"I heard he's a player's coach," said guard Joe Crawford. "The guys who've played for him, they've established a relationship with him that continues to this day."
Gillispie will try to build such relationships with this current group of Wildcats, who have spent the last two weeks dealing with Smith's exit while being kept in the dark about his successor. "For the most part we've been hearing crazy things every day, getting questions everywhere we went," guard Ramel Bradley said. The biggest question has been answered, leaving the Wildcats giddy for a fresh start. "He's a tireless worker," Barnhart said. "He has a great passion for the game and he's not afraid of the pressure. His attitude is â€˜bring it on.'" Kentucky was not the first school to approach Gillispie following Texas A&M's loss to Memphis last month in the NCAA tournament. He was contacted by Arkansas recently about replacing Stan Heath, but chose to stay with the Aggies. He agreed to a new contract last week that would have paid him $1.75 million a year, but he never signed. Gillispie said he wasn't waiting for Kentucky's call and was out recruiting for the Aggies when Barnhart got in touch. Gillispie knew he couldn't say no. "This is the place that basically invented college basketball," he said. Now he'll have to reinvent the Wildcats, who have ceded their longtime spot atop the Southeastern Conference to two-time defending national champion Florida. It's a mission he's feels he's finally ready for. And he doesn't expect to sit back and think, "How did I get here?" "I don't think you spend a whole lot of time wondering that or somebody's going to get ahead of you," he said. "I'm very, very grateful and honored to be here, but we have a lot of work to do."comments powered by Disqus