Billy Gillispie is from Graford, Texas, population 494. His father, Clyde, worked on oil rigs, but all Gillispie wanted to be when he grew up was a basketball coach.
Gillispie went to Ranger Junior College and then to Texas State. He played basketball but, he says, “not good enough.”
Now Gillispie coaches basketball at Texas A&M;, and he is more than good enough.
On Saturday, Gillispie brings his No. 6-ranked Aggies (7-1) to Anaheim’s Honda Center to match up against No. 1 UCLA (7-0) in the first game of the Wooden Classic doubleheader. USC and George Washington meet in the second game.
That No. 6 ranking is the highest in Texas A&M; history, but it came before the Aggies suffered their first loss of the season Tuesday at No. 9 Louisiana State.
“I figure 10 or 15 teams must have turned them down,” Gillispie said of his Wooden Classic invitation. Not likely.
Gillispie, 47, in his third year as Aggies head coach, has taken a team that had gone 0-16 in the Big 12 Conference the year before he arrived to consecutive 20-plus win seasons, an NIT spot, and last year into the second round of the NCAA tournament, where it took a three-pointer with three seconds left by LSU’s Darrel Mitchell to eliminate Texas A&M.;
“We still operate a little under the national radar,” Gillispie said the day after this week’s LSU loss.
That game was at Baton Rouge, La., so Saturday’s game is the continuation of a tough trip. But no matter what happens against UCLA, the going won’t be as rough as what Gillispie experienced when he took over at College Station in 2004.
“It was a pretty big task,” he said. “Maybe I was crazy, but what I saw was a great university located in a state with a lot of well-coached high school players.”
Gillispie had a gym rat’s resume when Athletic Director Bill Byrne hired him to replace Melvin Watkins.
He had spent four years as a graduate assistant at Southwest Texas State, two years as a high school assistant in Killeen, Texas, six years as head coach at three high schools, three years as an assistant at Baylor, three at Tulsa, two at Illinois.
In 2002, Gillispie got his first college head coaching job -- at Texas El Paso. In his first season, UTEP was 6-24. A year later, the Miners were 24-8 and in the NCAA tournament.
That’s the kind of turnaround that gets noticed by bigger schools. Byrne, who had been athletic director at Oregon and Nebraska before arriving in College Station, said Gillispie was an easy choice.
And Gillispie found the relative anonymity of the A&M; program both refreshing and challenging. He also had no qualms about leaving his Texas El Paso success behind.
“We had everything going great at UTEP,” Gillispie said. “We went from last place to first place, tied for a conference title, got into the championship game of our conference tournament -- and were still the last team picked in the NCAA tournament that season.
“The margin of error is so small at the mid-majors. To do what we did that second season and still be on pins and needles at the end? That’s tough.”
What he found at Texas A&M;, he said, were “the worst practice facilities I had ever seen,” lots of empty seats at games and even fewer second-guessers.
“The expectations weren’t much at all,” Gillispie said. “There hadn’t been a great tradition. So the pressure to be good was going to come from me. Of course, that was going to be a lot of pressure.”
Before Gillispie’s arrival, Texas A&M; hadn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 1987 and hadn’t won an NCAA game in 26 years.
While he accepts that there is not a great basketball tradition for him to sell, he does not agree that being at a school and in a state where football is the most popular sport is a negative.
“People make way too much about that,” he said. “We don’t have a football school. What we have is a great sports school, period. Any time our football program is on television for four hours, that’s four hours of free advertising. Who cares if A&M; is a football school or a basketball school? It is just a great, great school.”
Gillispie hasn’t had time to put his total stamp on the program yet.
Junior Joseph Jones, a 6-foot-9 forward who leads the Aggies in scoring (14.8 points a game) and is second in rebounding (5.0), and Acie Law IV, a 6-3 senior point guard who is second in scoring (13.6), were in the program when Gillispie arrived. Law, especially, struggled under Gillispie’s fierce early discipline and talked of transferring after spending a few days at what Gillispie called “early morning boot camp.”
Law stayed and the Aggies, three seasons removed from that 0-16 season, are expected to battle Kansas and Texas for the Big 12 title. And even if they don’t win it, even if they finish third or fourth or fifth, Gillispie won’t be on pins and needles on NCAA selection day.
“We have a long way to go,” Gillispie said. “We’re not very good yet. We’re nowhere near the level of being ‘a program’ in the way UCLA is. But we’ve got expectations now.”