FORT WORTH, Texas – Billy Gillispie said he had other opportunities to get back in NCAA Division I basketball during a successful stint as a Texas junior college coach. The West Texas native accepted one close to home, far from the overbearing pressure of trying to reach the Final Four or win a national championship.
Gillispie was introduced Tuesday as the new coach at Tarleton State, a program preparing for the transition from Division II and five years from even being eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
The move comes eight years after one ill-fated season at Texas Tech and two years after the former Kentucky coach had a kidney transplant. Gillispie had been coach the past five years at Ranger College, about 40 miles from Tarleton State.
“This is a very emotional time right now, and it's a very satisfying thing because it hasn't come easy,” Gillispie said during an online virtual news conference from the Stephenville campus, about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth. “I've had opportunities, but it wasn't the right opportunity. I've had so many people try to help me, and help me get back to this point."
Tarleton State announced Monday night that the 60-year-old Gillispie agreed to a four-year contract through the 2023-24 season, a deal pending approval by regents for the Texas A&M system. Gillispie's first major college job was at the system's flagship university, Texas A&M, from 2004-07.
Gillispie was a rising star in the coaching profession after quick rebuilding jobs at UTEP and Texas A&M, which had a 14-win improvement to 21 wins in his first season and won 27 games in 2006-07 before Kentucky hired him. He was fired after only two seasons when the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years, and he had a two-year hiatus from coaching before his troubled year at Texas Tech.
“I think because of being a victim of our success, turning around things so fast, I might have approached the last Division I jobs a little bit different because I just felt so much pressure,” he said. “I probably put too much pressure on myself, probably put too much pressure on our staff to perform and probably put too much pressure on the players because of the success that we had.”
After leaving Kentucky, he had another drunken driving arrest and spent time in a substance-abuse program. It was also during that span when his mother died and a nephew drowned.
The Red Raiders won only one Big 12 game in 2011-12 under Gillispie, who cited health concerns after being hospitalized twice in a month before resigning in September 2012. He stepped down amid allegations he mistreated players on his team, including exceeding limitations on practice time.
Before his resignation, the coach spent six days in a Lubbock hospital. A week later, Gillispie went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he said then that he was treated for kidney problems, abnormal headaches and high blood pressure.
Ranger College was 31-7 during Gillispie's debut in 2015-16, but it had to forfeit those wins because of an ineligible player. He announced his retirement midway through his second season at Ranger, saying he was taking the advice of doctors after battling high blood pressure. But he returned before the 2017-18 season, and the team reached the national junior college championship game in 2019, a year after his kidney transplant. Ranger was 28-3 this season.
Gillispie succeeds Chris Reisman, who moved into an administrative role at Tarleton State after going 39-22 the past two seasons. Reisman previously was an assistant coach for 16 years for his father, Lonn, who in 2018 retired after 30 years as head coach.
Tarleton begins the transition to Division I on July 1. The Texans will begin regular-season competition in the Western Athletic Conference next season but won't be eligible for the NCAA Tournament until the 2024-25 season.
“The only question about Tarleton basketball is going from Division II to Division I,” Gillispie said. “It's not about sustaining success, it's not about community support, it's not about a home-court advantage. ... Being able to recruit great players, they've done all that for the last 32 years. We'll be able to continue that. We just have to it at the Division I level."