Mac Engel

Home on the Range: Billy Gillispie content in West Texas

Billy Gillispie led Ranger College to a 28-5 record this season.
Billy Gillispie led Ranger College to a 28-5 record this season. tengel@star-telegram.com

The sight of a white Mercedes-Benz parked in front of Ron Butler Gym is as striking as the man standing next to it — Billy Gillispie.

The automobile regarded as one of the finest made belongs to the man who is considered to be one of the best pure basketball coaches of his era — both fitted into the modest surroundings of Ranger College, just a few miles east of the Middle of Nowhere.

At least from a quick look, Ranger College and Ranger, Texas, don’t see a lot of Mercedes-Benzes around these parts, and this two-year school certainly has never had a coach like this.

If Fort Worth is Where The West Begins, Ranger is Knee Deep In It. It is not for everybody, but at last Billy Clyde has found his fit in this town 85 miles west of Fort Worth — the perfect spot for a guy seeking redemption.

The town (population 2,451) and small school that is in dire need of capital improvements has the Rick Majerus of his generation — a peculiar, charming guy who is coaching its basketball team all the way to national relevance.

What Larry Brown has done for SMU, Billy Gillispie is doing for Ranger.

The former coach at UT El Paso, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech is the head coach at tiny Ranger. If you believe him, he’s loving it. And he’s never leaving.

“I’ve really thought the big time is where you are,” Gillispie said in an extended interview last week. “I’m the luckiest guy ever. This year, I couldn’t be having any more fun.”

Even though he is in his element in West Texas and just coaching ball, few believe Gillispie will remain here more than one or two years. Given his past, he will remain a risky hire, but few men in this era can coach ball better than this guy. Whoever hires him next must accept him, his past, his messages and his delivery.

But in return, they will win. Few men are as adept at coaching college ball as the man affectionately called Billy Clyde, who was hired by the school last March.

Ranger went 28-5 this season, losing to Odessa in the championship game of the Region V Tournament on Saturday 71-65. Four of Ranger’s losses were forfeits because it was ruled Ranger played an ineligible player. Gillispie and Ranger will find out Sunday evening if they received an at-large bid for the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament.

Arriving at Ranger

Sitting next to the scorer’s table inside the empty Ron Butler Gym, Billy’s West Texas twang sounds the same and he doesn’t look much different than he did when he left Texas Tech for health reasons in September 2012.

Gillispie, 56, is in his element on a basketball court. It does not matter if it’s a high school gym, a JUCO field house or Rupp Arena in Lexington. A basketball floor is where he belongs.

This particular floor, which sometimes he sweeps, is on the other side of the basketball moon from his previous jobs. Ron Butler Gym seats 500 people. Rupp Arena seats 23,500. Shortly after Gillispie took this job last year, he used his own money to update the home locker room.

When Gillispie resigned after only one year at Texas Tech amid allegations of mistreatment of players and violating NCAA rules about practice time, he did so because of his health — and his players were mad that he yelled at them a lot. The real problem was the Red Raiders were 8-23 in his first year.

Had that record been reversed, there would not have been any such comments.

Shortly after he resigned, he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He said he was treated for high blood pressure and, since then, he feels better but freely admits he does not have the best diet.

“I lived by myself and I thought I was dying. I thought my chest was going to explode,” he said. “I had never really paid any attention to my health. I’m a fix-it guy when I should be a maintenance guy.”

Before he arrived at Ranger, he went to basketball games, basketball practices, played golf, fished and he played the stock market. He said he had a few opportunities to return to the bench, but he did not want to take a job that was not the right fit.

“That’s the mistake I have made before and I am lucky enough to not have to coach at a job where I don’t know or trust the people,” he said.

Ranger President Dr. Bill Campion, who had known Gillispie for more than 30 years, called him last year and asked him if he would be interested in the job, to which Gillispie quickly said no.

“I’ve seen that team play,” he joked.

The team won two games last season. Gillispie attended Ranger and eventually he accepted the job as well as the title of athletic director with a combined salary of $108,000 a year. When he was at Kentucky, he made $2.3 million a season.

“I know you won’t believe this, but I really don’t care about me. I don’t worry about myself. I really do just want to help some guys that were overlooked and some second-chance guys and some coaches, too,” he said. “Nobody could have had a better professional experience than me. You can say, ‘You’ve had this downfall’ — I really don’t look at it like that.”

The downfalls

When Gillispie was at Texas A&M from 2004-07, he led a previously dormant program and won 20 games for three consecutive seasons, reached two consecutive NCAA tournaments and defeated Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. He was a big deal in College Station and he had the Aggies rolling. He was a good fit for College Station, and he could have been there forever.

But when Kentucky calls, you don’t say no. And when Kentucky called looking to replace Tubby Smith in 2007, the general consensus was that BCG was a bad fit for Lexington and the scrutiny that goes with the job.

“It was fine for me, but I was not a great fit for them,” he said. “I love horse racing and it was basketball 24 hours a day. The coach there now is the perfect fit for that place.”

In BCG’s two seasons at UK, the Wildcats were 40-27 with one NCAA Tournament appearance. He was fired at the end of the 2008-09 season and replaced by John Calipari, who reached the NCAA’s Elite Eight the next season with many of the players Gillispie recruited.

In the fall of that year, Gillispie was arrested in Kentucky on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol. It was the third time he had been charged with driving under the influence.

Not long afterward, he checked into the John Lucas Center for drug and alcohol treatment. “I went for the wrong reason — to show people I could coach again,” he said.

Gillispie said the DUI and the decision to check in that treatment center are two of the biggest regrets of his life.

“I was there for three weeks, and I really did learn a lot, but the problem when you do something like that is you get labeled something even if you are not,” he said. “I think I disrespected those who were there that really do have a problem.”

Gillispie also lost a lot money when he was a part of a Ponzi scheme operated by David Salinas, a Houston financial adviser with close ties to college basketball who reportedly bilked many coaches out of millions. Salinas committed suicide in 2011 after federal investigators probed his finances.

After all of that, Billy Clyde’s arrival in Lubbock in 2011 seemed like the perfect fit — a West Texas kid from Graford coaching the West Texas team. The relationship was a disaster, and it barely lasted one year.

“You’re not wrong if you thought it was a good fit — it just didn’t work out,” he said. “It’s about who you work with. I’m happy for Coach [Tubby] Smith and the success they are having.”

Finally home

Gillispie remains very much single. He was married for eight years but divorced in the early ’90s. He has a condo on a lake in Ranger as well as a house eight miles away in Eastland. He has no children but considers his players his kids.

With five 20-win seasons at major programs and four NCAA Tournament appearances, it is odd to see him here at Ranger College, but it is not odd for him.

He says he could go anywhere to coach, but after bouncing around and going through so much, a smaller place such as Ranger may be the best fit for Billy Gillispie. After Kentucky and Texas Tech, he has some trust issues. He’s not going to just take a job, and he doesn’t need the money.

A small place where he can just focus on coaching and recruiting rather than the other responsibilities that come with a Power 5 job may be a better spot. That’s what happened to Majerus.

Billy Clyde has told Campion this will be his last job, but Campion fully expects Gillispie to listen to offers.

“This has far exceeded my expectations, but he should listen,” Campion said. “But never say never.”

The amenities are not as nice, but the hassles are considerably fewer, and Gillispie is just as happy eating chicken strips with his players after a game as a meal in an expensive restaurant in a big city.

“I would be very leery about taking any job again,” he said. “I have a really good job and, ‘What makes you happy?’ 

For Billy Clyde, that’s basketball and Ranger College.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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