The following article was written by Benjamin Haynes, Esq.
Here is the scenario: It is the first day of conditioning for a division one basketball program. Naturally, players come in thinking they are in shape, only to find out that the strength and conditioning coach’s regimen for the team would prove otherwise. The conditioning starts off with stations of various lateral quickness improvement drills. This is followed by multiple sprints known as 17’s, where a player starts on the sideline and runs continuously back and forth from sideline to sideline 17 times. These 17’s are timed, and each player must make every sprint under a minute, or the entire team has to re-do the sprint. About halfway through the sprints, players start throwing up and pondering the thought of faking injuries. Some actually do quit the sprints due to an “injury”. All the while the coach is verbally challenging the players on a personal level (sometimes extremely personal) in order for the athlete to push through the pain and be mentally tough. This was my personal experience (no I was not one who got “injured”), and is the norm for programs all across the country.
So the proposed question is this: When is a coach doing his job by pushing a player to press past the mental fatigue in order to improve, and when is a coach mistreating or abusing a player?
Billy Gillispie has been in the news again recently. Coach Gillispie has allegedly been mistreating players during his one-year tenure at Texas Tech University. Players have stated that Coach Gillispie had been practicing more hours than the NCAA permits. Jordan Tolbert, Texas Tech’s leading scorer from last year, has gone on record stating that he doesn’t want to play for coach Gillispie if he comes back. An example of some of the “mistreatment” that has been revealed by these players is that Gillispie is allegedly not tolerant of injuries. It was reported that Gillispie supposedly made a player, Kader Tapsoba, who had stress fractures in both legs, run the arena steps until he started crying from the pain.
While at Kentucky, Billy Gillispie had been accused of severely mistreating players and playing multiple “head games” with players. While pushing a player mentally to dig deeper and improve, some of Gillispie’s methods while at Kentucky were severely questioned. For instance, it was reported on ESPN.com that Josh Harrellson said Gillispie once became so angered that he instructed Josh to sit in a bathroom stall during a halftime talk at Vanderbilt and then ordered him to ride back to Lexington in the Kentucky equipment truck. This type of treatment by a coach is not normal, but does it reach the level of abuse? Kentucky and Texas Tech would say yes, but would Texas A&M and UTEP?
This is not another article to bash Billy Gillispie and bring out more incidents that he has allegedly committed. This article is to provide insight on the thought process of how Billy Gillispie thinks, and how programs and fans react to such conduct based upon a program winning or losing.
Before going to Kentucky, Billy Gillispie was a head coach at both UTEP and Texas A&M. UTEP had won six games the season before Coach Gillispie arrived, and won 24 once Billy took over. At Texas A&M, the Aggies had zero conference wins prior to Billy taking the head coaching job. After Billy arrived, Texas A&M went to the Sweet 16 and also developed players, such as Acie Law, well enough to get drafted to the NBA.
Several notable basketball names have come to the defense of Coach Gillispie, the biggest name being Bill Self, the Head Coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. Coach Gillispie was an assistant to Self while at Illinois. Bill Self contacted ESPN in order to give his thoughts on the situation. Self was quoted saying, “I will say this: To have players who have only been in a program for a year or two and be such experts on what it takes to win and how to be treated is a little bit hard to grasp.”
Players who have not experienced Coach Gillispie would consider his coaching methods shocking and abusive, but just because they are not normal methods, does that mean they are so wrongful that Billy should be fired? Certainly, forcing an athlete to work out when seriously injured is abuse, and if true, should be grounds for termination. Has Billy Gillispie developed a course of conduct where he forces injured players to play?
To answer these questions, I interviewed a source that has been very close to Billy Gillispie’s basketball programs in the past. The source had this to say about Billy Gillispie from a basketball standpoint:
“From an X’s and O’s standpoint, Coach Gillispie has a great basketball mind. He has come from nothing. He came from being a high school coach, with no basketball playing background, to being a head coach at Kentucky in just 15 years. So he is going to push his players to do tough things so that these players are mentally tough and believe they can beat top teams even if they are not as talented.”
When I asked him about whether Coach Gillispie forced injured players to play, he said,“Coach G’s big thing was that there is a difference between being injured or hurt. If you were injured, you weren’t going to play, but if you are just sore and hurting you are going to play.” This is not abnormal, as my coach in college continually told us the same thing.
When asked about Billy’s tough methods, he responded by stating, “It’s a process. In that process, a lot of players breakdown. Combine that with losing, and it can turn into a nightmare. I truthfully believe his intentions are good.”
While at UTEP and Texas A&M, Billy Gillispie was never accused of mistreating his players. However, Billy Gillispie was racking up wins for these programs. Most people believe that the reason Billy Gillispie was terminated at Kentucky was because he was mistreating players. While the mistreatment of players had a small part in Kentucky firing him, there was more to the dismissal. Kentucky basketball is a different beast. They expect you to win a championship every single year, but also, they expect you to conduct interviews and mingle with “Big Blue Nation’s” fan base and boosters on a daily basis. Billy Gillispie was not very kind to numerous reporters during interviews and did not seem to accept the Kentucky basketball motto. You have to be a skillful politician to be a successful coach at Kentucky (see: John Calipari). Also, making the NIT for the first time in almost two decades was unacceptable.
Ask any Kentucky basketball fan this: would you have wanted Billy Gillispie to stay had he led Kentucky to a Final Four? The answer, undoubtedly, would be yes. Kentucky doesn’t care if you throw Josh Harrellson in the bathroom stall as long as you are hanging Final Four banners. So, while Billy Gillispie received a reputation for mistreating players at Kentucky, this mistreatment was far from the primary reason Billy was let go.
Texas Tech was 8-23 under coach Gillispie last season. Had Coach Gillispie been 23-8, would the athletic department be pondering the idea of releasing him over a few accusations of mistreating players? It is doubtful. Don’t believe me? I have some precedent. Case in-point: Bobby Knight.
It is well documented that Bobby Knight had an extremely bad temper. Allegations of Knight emotionally and physically abusing players, by slapping or kicking them, have been made on numerous occasions throughout Bobby’s coaching career. Even through all of the different accusations, Indiana retained Bobby Knight. Why? Maybe it was because Knight had won three National Championships for the University. It wasn’t until 2000, when Indiana had not made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament for six years, that Bobby Knight was finally terminated. The Indiana University president all of a sudden developed a “zero tolerance” policy towards Bobby Knight as accusations of him choking various players during practices surfaced. If Knight had continued to win championships, Indiana would have probably allowed Knight to stay.
While winning, Indiana University was willing to deal with Coach Knight’s temper. However, once losing was the norm for the Hoosiers, Knight’s temper was no longer something Indiana was willing to tolerate.
Compared to Bobby Knight, Billy Gillispie is a saint. Billy has never been involved with any conversation of physically hitting one of his players. Imagine if Billy Gillispie had choked a player in practice at Texas Tech or Kentucky. He would be fired before Kentucky nation could even get a hold of him on Twitter. Still, Billy Gillispie has been pegged as an extremely abusive coach through testimony of a few players.
It should be noted that players these days are much more coddled than players of the past. Through the development of AAU, 6th-graders being ranked, and the dynamic of the game changing, players these days are not used to having coaches act like Billy Gillispie or Bobby Knight. Old school toughness is gone from the game today, and it’s expected to be gone from the way coaches coach as well.
If Billy Gillispie forced an athlete to practice when Billy knew the student-athlete was seriously injured, that is undoubtedly mistreatment and abuse. However, Billy Gillispie’s mental games may or may not be deemed actual mistreatment. According to Billy’s past, if a school is winning, most likely the mistreatment isn’t bad enough for firing. However, if the school is losing, Billy is the most abusive coach in the land. This article was not written to defend Billy Gillispie in his actions, but to bring to the forefront the change of what is acceptable and unacceptable action in this era, as well as to point out that winning covers a plethora of flaws.