Ex-UTEP coach Billy Gillispie back in El Paso, takes in Miner game, talks possible future
If Billy Gillispie is concerned about being unemployed, you wouldn't know it by his ever-present smile.
Wearing a blue polo shirt, black pants and black leather jacket, he carried his small tub of popcorn into his section in the Don Haskins Center Monday, ready to look for his seat near the court.
Before he could make his way down the steps, a Miner fan stopped Gillispie and asked if he could take a picture with him. Gillispie smiled and said yes but did ask the fan if he could put his beer down before the picture was taken.
Once he got to his seat, he didn't appear to be asked for pictures or autographs by fans as he took in the game in the arena where he once coached.
"I love El Paso. Always have," Gillispie told ABC-7 at halftime of the UTEP-UNLV game. "Everyone has been so great since the first day I got here -- every single time I come back. It's a place that I love."
Gillispie's first two years as a college head coach were at UTEP in the Western Athletic Conference. He made headlines there for the biggest turnaround in basketball history, taking the Miners from 6-24 in 2002-03 to 24-8 and a berth in the NCAA tournament the following year.
The conference named him coach of the year in 2004, the same year he was a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year - the first of three times he made the final cut. He was then an adept recruiter, and he stayed in close contact with scores of Texas high school coaches to keep in the loop about the state's talent.
After a stint at Texas A&M went well, he had his shot at one of the most coveted jobs in the country, Kentucky. When he was unable to turn around the struggling dynasty quickly enough, the boosters turned on him, and Gillispie ended up at Texas Tech.
Gillispie resigned from Texas Tech in late September, citing health concerns. His second season at the university had not even started.
"Billy has decided to focus on his health, and we wish him a full recovery," Texas Tech Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt said in a news release on Sept. 20. "We are proud of the young men that he has brought to this campus. Billy's decision allows him to concentrate on his well-being and allows us to turn our attention to preparations for the upcoming season."
Gillispie will be paid the remainder of this contract year, about seven months' worth, or about $467,000. Gillispie's resignation letter said he appreciated the opportunity to coach the Red Raiders, but that he needed to tend to his health, officials said.
"I love coaching," Gillispie told ABC-7. "When you watch games they make you miss coaching even more. Hopefully there will be an opportunity for me later on in March or April (to coach). We'll see what happens. Whatever happens I'm going to be happy with it."
Gillispie said he has been grateful for UTEP coach Tim Floyd's kindness but did not answer directly if he would like to be an assistant coach on Floyd's team.
"I love coach Floyd and he's been so kind to me, and gracious, to allow me to come watch them practice," Gillispie told ABC-7. "He's a great coach. He's got a great staff. I'm so happy to see this crowd and to see the excitement. There's nothing like UTEP basketball. They've got the right guy leading them back to where they want to go. I love the team. They're improving. They're improving a lot. I think before it's all said and done they'll be where they want to be."
Gillispie's resignation from Texas Tech came less than a month after the school announced it was looking into allegations of player mistreatment last fall by the veteran coach - a sensitive topic at Texas Tech, given the 2009 firing of football coach Mike Leach after claims that he mistreated a player suffering from a concussion.
Hocutt, who declined to make further comment on Sept. 20, earlier that month called the allegations "very troubling."
In January, the school reprimanded Gillispie and assistant coach Brooks Jennings after a review found the team had exceeded practice time limits in 2011. The school reported the secondary violation to the NCAA and penalized itself by reducing the team's practice time by about 12 hours.
While all that was filtering out, Gillispie's health was apparently growing worse.
Twice in a 10-day span this past month, 911 calls were made from Gillispie's home. The first, on Aug. 31, came hours before he was to meet with Hocutt and led to a six-day stay in a Lubbock hospital. The two men never met to discuss the allegations.
Gillispie wasn't taken to the hospital after the second call on Sept. 10. But the following day, he left for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he said he got treatment for kidney problems and abnormal headaches. Doctors there told him to avoid stress for 30 days.
Gillispie succeeded Pat Knight, who went 50-61 in his three-plus years. Knight had taken over after his father, Bobby Knight, resigned in February 2008.
Gillispie's first head coaching job was at UTEP.
He later went to Texas A&M, taking a downtrodden program and leading the Aggies to three consecutive 20-win seasons after they went winless in Big 12 play the year before he got there. At the end of Gillispie's first year with the Aggies in 2005, he was named the AP's Big 12 coach of the year.
It was the NIT after his first season and the NCAA tournament after the next two -- getting the Aggies to the round of 16 in 2007. But Kentucky came courting, and two weeks after his final game with the Aggies, a 65-64 loss to Memphis in the NCAA regional semifinals, he left Texas for the Bluegrass State.
ABC-7 Web Producer Leonard Martinez and The Associated Press contributed to this report
Copyright 2014 KVIA. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.