As the clock wound down its final few ticks on Wednesday night, the cameras panned to Coach Billy Gillispie for what could be his final few moments as Kentucky basketball coach. Gillispie stood there with a look on his face that showed a man full of emotion. With tears seeming to well up in his face, Gillispie looked genuniely sad and disappointed as his look suggested a man who knew his fate was likely already determined. It was at that moment that an emotion that I have not had for Gillispie yet showcased itself. For a short period of time, I genuinely felt sorry for the man. Here is a basketball junkie, someone who lives and breathes the game 24-7 and was given the keys to his own personal Camelot, the UK basketball program, now having to accept that he may lose that which seemed so perfect for him. Its one thing for a person to never reach his or her goals….most get used to that. But to have your mountaintop ascended and then see it all taken away….well that has to be difficult. In those last few moments, I saw what looked to be that pain on Gillispie’s face and I realized that no matter what led us to this point, I genuinely feel sympathy for the guy.
We all like to play pop psychologist and try to analyze people’s emotions, but over the past week or so, I have gotten the feeling that a there is a genuine sense of regret in Coach Gillispie’s demeanor. I first noticed it at the NIT game in Memorial when for the first time in months, the team looked free and loose and seemed to be having a great deal of fun on the court. While Gillispie was still barking orders on the sideline, the players talked afterwards about how he had expressed to them how much they needed to enjoy this moment and had written “FUN” on the top of the pre-game message board. Patrick Patterson spoke about how players were much looser and “not afraid to make mistakes”, a knowing nod to all the times that mistakes have led to tight play and hurt feelings. Then came the change in Gillispie’s demeanor, with multiple comments about his love for the program, his more positive interaction with players and the media and his willingness to mix things up on the court (even playing zone for a couple of plays at Creighton). While on the court the team’s play was up and down, the atmosphere was much different….gone were the dreary faces and what replaced them were smiles and happiness. Gillispie was more relaxed and looked like a man who was intent on making up for lost time and trying to give the best impression he could to a critiquing public.
A December Press Conference
The whole scene reminded me of a pattern with Gillispie. When Clyde was first hired, I spoke to a person who knew him well who said, “he can be both the gruffest and the nicest guy ever…sometimes in the same day.” I thought of this back in December when I got to experience the two sides of Gillispie after a UK game. During one of UK’s contests, I spoke with an individual who works for UK who was in charge of charting the players’ +/- ratio (that determines whether the team scores more or less when a player is in the game) at the direction of Gillispie. Because I am a statistics geek, I was excited to find out Gillispie was into the statistic, especially when the individual told me that it was that statistic that explained why Porter and Harris were so effective….the team’s plus/minus was better when they were in the game.
Armed with this information, I asked Gillispie in the post-game press conference about the statistic. I said, “Over the last couple of games, Michael Porter’s plus/minus has been the highest on the team, why do you think that is the case?” The point of the question was just to see Gillispie’s thoughts on the issue, but what I got instead was a classic biting Gillispie answer that was somewhat demeaning. He said, “Plus/minus….I dont know why you are asking about that. That statistic….what does it come from hockey?” He acted as if he knew nothing about the statistic, while at the same time quoting AJ Stewart and other player’s plus/minus from previous games….showing that he did actually use the statistic. I had seen this action before….in nearly every press conference, Gillispie picked out one media member and when their question was asked, belittled it….and this happened to everyone ranging from Brett Dawson and Alan Cutler to a 20 year old girl from the college newspaper. Everyone has their “Jeanine Edwards” moment with Gillispie and this was mine.
I was a bit ticked off about the whole situation, but media members all said “dont worry, it is just Billy being Billy” and I dropped it out of my mind. But then I ran into Billy that night at a Lexington Catholic game where he was watching Vee Sanford. At that moment, I saw a completely different Billy Gillispie. Away from the press conference platform, where he sits above everyone and is the arbitror of what is and is not a good question, he was sitting at a table by himself watching a basketball game. As I walked by, he shouted “hey lawdog” and when I came over, I saw the other Billy. He apologized for his tone with me and said, “I didnt mean anything by what I said”. He told me how he does use plus/minus and the two of us actually had a mini-debate about its uses. He asked me about my law practice, the blog, etc and as I left said, “keep asking questions, you are doing well.” No one heard that but me and I still felt the embarassment of the public reprimand, but I knew this was “Billy being Billy”‘s way of remedying the situation.
The Regretful Coach
I thought about that interaction as I watched Billy tonight. For weeks leading up to the NIT, we saw a defiant Billy, that culminated in his now-famous and damaging line at the SEC Tournament that he had not “signed on” to be an “ambassador” for the program. Since that line, the administration has not taken up for Billy and all quotes have been ominous. But after that line, Billy has seemed to become the more thoughtful, regretful Billy I saw before. He looks and acts like the guy who wants a second chance and an ability to explain himself, both to the fans and the administration. Gone are the smirks and putdowns that were so tiresome to watch for so long. Instead you have a guy who simply says he has done “the best that I could” and wishes a chance to come back and try again. In the same way that he showcased a sense of regret to me in December, I think the more flexible Billy has tried to showcase that same regret in the last week. Unfortunately for him, it may be too little to late. Billy’s bed may have been made after the Ole Miss game when he said he would not be an “ambassador” and his attempts now to become just that may have fallen on deaf ears. When people have told you for two years that you need to change some of your actions and your response has been to either ignore the requests or simply defiance, it is hard to believe that a genuine turnaround can, or will, occur.
But even if that is the case and even if he deserves the fate that he may end up getting, I cant help but feel a bit sorry for Clyde from Texas. This marriage could have been wonderful. Had he bent just a little bit and done just a few things differently, everyone…from administrators to the players to the media to the fans would have all seen him differently. As I wrote on here a few weeks back, we WANT to love our coach….and Gillispie could have been that guy. Unfortunately stubborness and unnecessary bouts of arrogance may have prevented that from happening and even if that is totally his fault, it is a shame. Tonight Billy looked sad about the realization of what might have been, and actually to be honest, I am too.